Cracking Kuhnau from Skywalker Sound

Harmonia Mundi USA have found a great way to add value to the CD format. Their new 1+1 series offers double CDs for the price of one full price disc, with performances drawn from their wonderful back catalogue giving a mix of mainstream and lesser known repertoire.

I took two 1+1's on holiday to France in June, and was so impressed I bought another one there. Monastic Chant is a recital of 12th & 13th century European Sacred Music sung by the Theatre of Voices and directed by Paul Hillier in wonderfully atmospheric performances and recordings. Similarly William Christie's playing of Rameau's Pièces de clavecin (1724) and Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de clavecin (1728) also comes highly recommended. Strangely these entrancing Rameau pieces are not too well represented in the catalogue, so this 1+1 fills the gap nicely.

But the real winner for me was the double CD of Kuhnau's keyboard works. Johann Kuhnau (see picture) was one of the last Renaissance composers, and comes with a pretty good pedigree, although the text books usually consider him to be a rather dry forerunner of Bach. His early musical education was in Dresden, and he was something of a polymath, studying ancient and modern languages and mathematics, and also qualifying as a lawyer. He became organist of the famous Leipzig Thomaskirche forty years before J.S. Bach held the position, and was also cantor for the major Leipzig churches.

But there is an 'off the wall' streak in Kuhnau which belies his reputation for being boring. He published an early satirical novel, Der musicalische Quack-salber (The Musical Quack), and the first CD in this set is devoted to his embryonic keyboard sonatas which are called Frische Clavier-Fruchte (Fresh Keyboard Fruits). The 'off the wall' approach spreads over to the second CD; Kuhnau's Musicalische Vorstellung einiger Biblischer historien (The Biblicla Sonatas). These feature the pioneering use of mathematical structures in a fascinating prelude to the technique of J.S. Bach.

For the Kuhnau John Butt (see photo) plays harpsichord, clavichord and organ. The recordings date from Butt's peiod as an Associate Professor at Berkeley, and interestingly were made at Lucasfilm's Skywalker Sound studios in Marin County. (The organ tracks were recorded at Hertz Hall, University of California, Berkeley). The Lucasfilms sound is a sharp contrast to the usual resonant 'period' acoustics. The harpsichord is closely miced, firm and powerful, but aurally none the worse for the hi-tec studio setting. One complaint though. Why do keyboard players insist on mixing the clavichord and other instruments on the same CD? On paper it may seem a good way of breaking the potential monotony of 70 minutes of music making restricted to the harpsichord's register. But in practice it just doesn't work. The laws of physics dictate that the right level for the harpsichord, or organ, will make the clavichord sound like the twanging of distant elastic bands. I am afraid it doesn't work on this, or any other CD. Don't be put off though as the gems are the Fresh Keyboard Fruits which are all played on the harpsichord.

I bought the Kuhnau in the superb Harmonia Mundi shop in Avignon and paid 18 euros (£12, $21 US) for it. But these highly recommended 1+1 sets originate from Harmonia Mundi USA, and are far cheaper if bought from the US. The Kuhnau is available via Amazon marketplace seller Caiman USA for just £10 delivered to the UK, and the retail price is $17.98 (£10).

Although Kuhnau is a discovery for me, he is not for Hyperion who have recorded his sacred music with Robert King and the King's Consort. The audio samples indicate it is pretty exciting stuff. Try it for yourself here on an overgrown path.

Tell other readers what you think of Kuhnau's music using the comment fuction at the bottom of this post, or share this unknown composer with a friend by emailing this post, including the music links, using the envelope icon.

If you enjoyed this post take an overgrown path to What a Facade!


SJZ said…
Nice stuff! Not quite JSB, but it makes one wonder how many other obscure Baroque German choral composers there are floating around. Hopefully Hyperion will record more of them before they run out of money. Always enjoy your posts.
M. Keiser said…
beautiful! whats the name of the piece? ...haunting and elegant. I will definately be on the lookout for this guy.
Pliable said…
MK - it is Tristis est anima mea from Hyperion's Sacred Music by Johann Kuhnau. Just follow the link for the full details.

It is rewarding when a relatively unknown composer emerges like this. It is also good to see the audio links proving useful. They do add more work, and I was wondering whether to continue with them.

Any other feedback welcome...

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