MEISTER Il Giardino del piacere

This album is full of surprises, not all of them associated with its musical contents. Advance PR materials stated that its contents were recorded originally for televised broadcast in 2004, then forgotten, and only just rediscovered. A final recording by the celebrated Musica Antiqua Köln, forgotten by its performers and recording company? Then, there are the liner notes. Reinhard Goebel is both candid and bitter in discussing the trajectory of his disbanded ensemble, claiming that by 1993 their best years were past, and referring to it as being “outdated” in 2000 because “press and promoters wanted garish operas, not esoteric sonatas.” 

Yet operas, garish or otherwise, and esoteric sonatas remain both in demand by early-music venues, drawing live crowds and respectable CD sales.

The music is a bit of a surprise as well, if not the result of an “original genius” that Goebel likens to C. P. E. Bach. Johann Friedrich Meister (1638–97) seems by all accounts to have been something of a rebel, getting himself imprisoned the year after his appointment as music director of the Hofkapelle of Duke Ferdinand Albrecht I of Brunswick-Lüneburg. He escaped and fled with the help of friends, and eventually ended his days with a lengthy tenure as organist at St. Marien, in Flensburg. Musically, he appears to have owed more to the earlier likes of Scheidt, Schein, and Schütz than to his immediate North German compatriots; the rapt expressiveness of his slow movements (the Adagio that opens the Sonata No. 4, the Arioso of the Sonata No. 5, the Adagio at the start of the Sonata No. 6, the Grave that begins the Sonata No. 10, to name but four outstanding examples) brings to mind the popularity of such diverse Italian composers such as Marenzio, Uccellini, Farina, and Corelli with both German musicians and publishers. Other influences would appear to be French, as in the passacaglia that is closer to the minor-key French passacaille in all respects than to the major-key Italian version.

These are the best things in the 1695 collection of sonatas—actually suites, whose movements number from five to eight per suite, and whose titles are either tempo indications or dances. There is a convincing fancy to such pieces, as well as a simple but effective craftsmanship, that makes them stand out. The three irregular fugues are ineffective as such, the new material in subsidiary voices usually perfunctory; but viewed as pieces in which imitative textures contribute instead to the twists in Meister’s musical logic, they are more successful. It’s only a shame that the rest of the sonatas weren’t recorded before MAK broke up.

The performances are persuasive. For all its reputation for laser-like intensity, Goebel’s ensemble (reduced here to four members) was also capable of warmth and theatrical sensibility—qualities that are required in these works, and supplied convincingly. The MAK’s tone is refined and disciplined, minus the choked wiriness that sometimes passes for appropriate scholarship in music of this period. Balance between the musicians is excellent, and there’s the same give-and-take you would find in good chamber groups specializing in later eras. Tempos are varied, with a slight, pleasing flexibility to phrasing that helps Meister’s Il giardino to breath. Ornamentation is light but effective, and always stylish.

With excellent sound, this album should appeal to students of the Baroque, and especially to those interested in its persuasively lyrical Italianate vein. That fanciers of the MAK will want it, goes without saying. They’d be right to do so, too.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal

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