GEORG MUFFAT: Armonico Tributo; Florilegium Primum – Ars Antiqua Austria/ Gunar Letzbor – Pan Classics PC 10253 (2 CDs), 66:35, 73:04 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Savoyian composer Georg Muffat (1653 – 1704) knows how to produce the goods. Rarely—maybe even never—have I come across any of his music that was less than invigorating, delightfully tuneful, graceful, and emotionally engaging in a way that only Handel really achieved in his best operas. His very detailed and thoughtful performance directions that were printed along with his music are something not seen at that time even remotely. His collections of string pieces, Florilegium Primum and Florilegium Secundum (First and Second Bouquets) were composed in 1695 and 1698 and remain his main claim to fame, though he wrote in many genres but focusing primarily on instrumental music.
It was Muffat’s encounter with Corelli, specifically his Concerti Grossi that led to the production of Armonico Tributo. Though Corelli’s work was subjected to many revisions over a long period of time, and was only finally published after his death, the pieces themselves were well known and had been played all over Europe for 30 years or more. As the initial forays into the concerto grosso form, Corelli’s work inspired other composers as well who were already leaning into the schema, albeit not as emphatically or with as much confidence, Muffat among them, who seems to have a full grasp of the direction music was heading. These five “sonatas” are written for as little are two violins and a cello up to a near-full complement of strings.
I am not sure why Pan didn’t decide to give us the second book of Florilegium to make a complete set—maybe book II is on the way. But these pieces represent essentially an injection of French dance forms into Baroque Austria. Though politically France and Austria were at opposite ends of the spectrum, Vienna had been relying on musical advances and style from Paris for some time. In order to convey this new and specific French music Muffat entered precise directions into his scores to ensure that the dances were performed correctly. Though the music is courtly and sophisticated, and perhaps a little stiff for Viennese standards, the rigorous and subtle rhythmic changes in the music must have challenged and fascinated the Austrians.
Ars Antiqua Austria, under the firm direction of Gunar Letzbor, has taken these considerations seriously and gives us performances that surely would have pleased the composer. The balance and phrasing are natural and beauteous, the string playing precise, and tonal qualities excellent. The sound is close but not overbearing, resonating in a natural acoustic.