Mattheson: The Melodious Talking Fingers

Mattheson: The Melodious Talking Fingers
Colin Booth, harpsichord
Soundboard SBCD 220. 69’47

Mattheson CD

Many music lovers will have heard the name of Johann Mattheson (1681-1764), and may perhaps have heard of his 1739 Der vollkommene Capellmeister, his rather shaky polemic on music theory, but few will know much of his music. An enigmatic figure in 17th century Hamburg, he is perhaps best known today for nearly killing Handel during a fight in the Hamburg opera, Handel apparently surviving by a well-placed button that deflected Mattheson’s sword. His early career as an organist (at the long-since demolished Mariendom), singer and opera composer was combined with that of an Anglophile diplomat, serving as secretary to the English Envoy Extraordinary to the Hanseatic city-states. He is sometimes referred to as the first music critic. This recording is of his complete Die Wolklingende Fingeraprache (translated on the recording as The Melodious Talking Fingers), first published in 1735.

Die Wolklingende Fingeraprache (which was dedicated to Handel) contains 19 pieces, with 12 fugues interspersed with seven pieces in different musical genres (an allemanda, correntegavottafughettasinfoniaburla and seriosita). The second edition added the French subtitle of Les Doits Parlans (The Talking Fingers). I am not sure what Handel might have thought of it, but it cannot be said to up to Handel’s own compositional standards. The rather formulaic fugues are worked out in scholarly but rather unimaginative style, and the other pieces do not provide sufficient musical interest to lift the music above the workaday.

Some of the pieces have titles enlarging on their nature, for example Fuga VII in Hypodiatessaron referring to the interval of a fourth used in the fugue theme. Fuga VIII is marked in Contrapunto doppio, a doi Soggetti, per diversi Intervalli, ed Loti e Tempi, the two subjects going through a range of intervals and tempi. It is introduced by aSinfonia, although that is given a separate track number on this recording. Fuga X is rather more interesting than the rest. It is marked as A tre Soggetti, its chromatic opening theme eventually blended with the other two more lively themes. It is following by an attractive moment of repose with the Seriosità.

The final fugue is based on the Lutheran evening hymn Werde munter, mein Gemüte (Become cheerful, my mind), best known for its use in Bach’s well known ‘Jesu joy of man’s desiring’ (Jesu, meiner Seelen Wonne, from the cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147). It is a subdued conclusion to the set and returns to the opening key of G major, having ventured in descending fifths down to E flat major.

Perhaps sensibly, Colin Booth takes the music seriously, playing it as written without attempting to lift it beyond the notes on the page. This makes it eminently suitable for repeated listening, with none of the mannerisms that can make a live performance so exciting, but rarely work on recordings. He plays a very successful harpsichord he made himself, the clarity of tone and consistency across the whole spectrum of sound proving ideal for the contrapuntal nature of the music. The recording and production, both also by Colin Booth is excellent, although the thud of the key hitting the bed is occasionally audible. He makes sparing use of ornaments, but they are always appropriate.

The comment on the back of the CD cover that these pieces “were probably the inspiration for Bach’s Art of Fugue” should be taken with a pinch of salt. The reference in Colin Booth’s programme notes merely mentions one commentator who noted that both have 12 Fugues with a few extra pieces inserted. Apart from that, I fear the comparison with the Art of Fugue doesn’t do many favours to Mattheson, who had an uneasy relationship with Bach, with several barely concealed elements of jealousy creeping into his writings in praise of Bach.

Although probably lacking mass appeal, this recording will be welcome by harpsichordists and those wanting to explore the lesser-known corners of Baroque music.

[PS. Feedback from readers suggests that this CD is not available through any of the normal outlets, but only via Colin Booth’s own website here]