Mstation Classical Reviews

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Mon, 29 Aug 2005

Georg MUFFAT (c1645-1704)

Armonico Tributo (1682) 

Sonata 1 in D major [11.53]

Sonata 2 in G minor [12.45]

Sonata 3 in A major [9.38]

Sonata 4 in E minor [7.32]

Sonata 5 in G major [16.55]

The Parley of Instruments dir. Peter Holman and Roy Goodman

rec April 1981, St Jude-on-the-hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London

HELIOS CDH55191 [59.05]

It is almost unbelievable that this excellent recording, originally released on Hyperion and now re-issued on their budget Helios label, was made nearly 25 years ago. We still tend to think of the period instrument revival as a relatively new thing, and yet this recording is more accurately described now as a “classic” or “vintage” recording. The Parley of instruments was one of the second generation of period instrument groups that emerged in the late ’70s and early ’80s and brought an extra level of professionalism to the early music scene. Previously enthusiasm for something new had been the hallmark of such groups, often at the expense of perfect intonation and tight ensemble. The Parley of instruments began to change that towards a much slicker approach, setting the period instrument revival on the road towards consummate professionalism that has since become such a pervasive aspect. Many lament the high gloss that now covers all such performances and regret the loss of a bit of the “dirt” that used to give historically informed performances that edge of risk and excitement. In these older Parley recordings it is possible to hear the better aspects of both approaches.

The Parley of Instruments has always specialised in the smaller and mid-scale repertoire of Baroque ensemble music, firmly based around music for strings. Occasionally they added guest wind or brass players – their famous recording of the Sonatae Tam Aris Quam Aulis Servientes by Muffat’s close contemporary Heinrich Ignaz von Biber, (also available on Helios as CDH55041 and well-worth hearing) which was hugely influential on this undergraduate reviewer in the mid ’80s, showed the perfection that could be obtained with natural trumpets expertly played. This Muffat disc shows the group in possibly its classic formation of two violins (Roy Goodman and Roy Mowatt) two violas (Theresa Caudle and Annette Isserlis) and mid-sized continuo team of cello, violone, theorbo and harpsichord or organ (Mark Caudle, Amanda Macnamara, Tim Crawford and Paul Nicholson or Peter Holman). The sense of ensemble with this line-up is like that of a string quartet – the players know each other and know intimately they way the others play. The result is not so much the slick polish borne of consummate professionalism that characterises most recordings now, but a true sense of inherent musicianship.

This musicianship has certainly stood the test of time. The recording seems to have lost none of it freshness, sparkle or style. The booklet notes (reprinted exactly and still dated 1981) should have been revised as they take no account of musical or musicological developments of the last quarter century and are still lamenting the fact that Muffat’s “relatively small output is largely ignored”. In part thanks to recordings such as this, this is certainly no longer the case – Muffat is a well-known name again, and frequently performed by keyboardists and string ensembles alike. The music is elegant and listenable; Muffat was one of the first German composers to attempt Couperin’s Goûts réunie, the unification of German, Italian and French musical styles. There is clear influence of Muffat’s time in Rome, where these works were played to Corelli, who made suggestions, as well as Muffat’s grounding as a Fugueist in the German manner. The implied solo-tutti relationship between a concertino of two violins and continuo and a ripieno including the two violas and bass, while never explicitly exploited by the composer, nonetheless comes across clearly throughout the performances. There is constant variation of texture and timbre, albeit within the apparently limited palette of the string ensemble. 

Of the five sonatas it would be invidious to pick one out as superior as each has its individual charms. For sheer compositional skill however, attention should be drawn to the last sonata, which, at nearly 17minutes, is significantly the longest of the group. Muffat ends his collection with a tremendous Passacaglia (a minute and a half longer than the whole fourth sonata) of 25 variations over a bass pattern closely related to that used by J S Bach in the Goldberg Variations. The composer was obviously pleased with it, as it reappears at the end of his 1701 collection of Concerti Grossi. The Parley of Instruments perform this great movement with perhaps more fluidity than the tempo marking of Grave would suggest – and, indeed, are well over a minute quicker than the 1985 recording of the same work by London Baroque on Harmonia Mundi France (HMA 1901220) which also featured Roy Goodman, as it happens. The tempi on the whole err on the quick side, but the elegance of the playing is undeniable. Overall, the whole disc is a joyous pleasure to listen to, and, as mentioned earlier, age is no barrier to quality. It would still be hard to find a more convincing performance of this wonderful music. Now that it is available at budget price, this disc recommends itself as a good use of the buyer’s money.

Peter Wells

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