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JOHANN KUHNAU (1660 - 1722)

Frische Clavier-Früchte

Seven Harpsichord Sonatas (Leipzig 1696)

Suonata I in g minor
Suonata II in D
Suonata III in F
Suonata IV in c minor
Suonata V in e minor
Suonata VI in B flat
Suonata VII in a minor

Jan Katzschke, harpsichord

CPO 777 532

As has been observed before, German music from the time between Heinrich Schütz and Johann Sebastian Bach is not fully explored yet. Dietrich Buxtehude is the exception; many of his contemporaries are still waiting to be taken seriously and become a part of the repertoire of individual performers and ensembles. Johann Kuhnau is a good example of a composer who today is mainly known for a tiny part of his oeuvre. His Biblical Sonatas have been recorded several times, and some of his vocal works are also known, especially his motet Tristis est anima mea. In 2010 it was 350 years ago that he was born and that was the reason Jan Katzschke made two recordings of his music. The first was devoted to cantatas and was released on time. It is probably indicative of the lack of attention given to this composer that hardly any other discs with his oeuvre have been released and that this particular recording has been on the shelf for four years. I can't quite figure out why this is the case; could it be that it was offered to various labels which then refused to release it? Anyway, a record company which is not interested in this recording has missed the boat. These seven keyboard sonatas are very fine music and are of considerable historical importance as well.

Johann Kuhnau was brilliant, intellectually and musically. He was acknowledged as such in his own time. He received an outstanding education and came into contact with some of the brightest minds of his time. He was a kind of uomo universale, who was active as a lawyer, but also as an author of various books, spoke several languages and was also knowledgeable in theology and mathematics. He spent the main part of his life in Leipzig where he was appointed as organist in the Thomaskirche in 1684. In 1701 he succeeded Johann Schelle as Thomaskantor. In this capacity he was the teacher of three of Germany's most renowned composers of the generation of Bach: Johann David Heinichen, Johann Friedrich Fasch and Christoph Graupner. The fact that the latter two were offered the job of Thomaskantor after Kuhnau's death in 1722 bears witness to the standard of Kuhnau as a teacher.

In his capacity of Thomaskantor Kuhnau composed a large amount of sacred music. This part of his oeuvre became increasingly the subject of criticism as it was considered old-fashioned. Kuhnau was rooted in the tradition of the 17th century and resisted the influence of Italian opera in music for the church. However, this should not be exaggerated: Kuhnau's output includes several pieces which show the influence of the Italian style in its use of recitatives and arias. The success of his keyboard music lasted longer: the Frische Clavier-Früchte were published in 1696 and were reprinted five times between 1700 and as late as 1740. Even a modernist like Johann Mattheson considered some fugal subjects from Kuhnau's pen as model examples. George Frideric Handel borrowed material from the Suonata III for two of his own compositions.

Kuhnau seems to have been the first German composer to write sonatas specifically intended for the keyboard. Before it was mainly dances, mostly as part of a suite, or pieces like canzon, toccata and prelude which were written for organ or harpsichord. Sonatas were mainly written for an instrumental ensemble. Such sonatas usually comprised various movements of a contrasting character, reflecting the stylus phantasticus which had its roots in the Italian early baroque and was also a feature of the North German organ school. Kuhnau's sonatas are stylistically close to such instrumental works. Although they comprise various movements these are not always clearly separated. Only some have an indication of their character. The Suonata I, for instance, consists of four movements; the second is an adagio, the third an allegro, whereas the first and last movements have no indication. In some sonatas Katzschke takes hardly a pause between the movements, underlining the fact that they are basically in just one movement, comprising of various sections. In other sonatas the movements have a more independent character, such as the Suonata VI: it begins with a ciaccona which is repeated at the end. In between are two movements without a character indication embracing a movement, called vivace, which is a double fugue.

The number of movements varies from four to five, and they differ in character. Some are dances, others bear the traces of a concerto movement, there are echo effects and some movements have a strong improvisatory character. That is the case, for instance, with the Suonata V, which has the features of a North-German organ toccata. The first movement has an improvisatory character and is followed by a fugue. Next we hear another movement with improvisatory traces; it ends with a kind of transitional passage - as we know them from Buxtehude's string sonatas - which leads to the last movement which has a fugal character.

Jan Katzschke delivers a highly convincing interpretation. The differentiated treatment of the various sonatas underlines their diversity in character. The articulation and the observance of the difference between good and bad notes results in a strongly speechlike performance. He plays a very fine instrument "of German construction", as the booklet says. More specific information would have been desirable. Its strong and marked sound makes it perfectly suitable for this repertoire. More of Kuhnau's keyboard music would be most welcome.

Johan van Veen, 25 November 2013

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