Wenzeslaus Thomas Matiegka (1773-1830)
Six Sonatas for Guitar, Op.31
Sonata No.1 in C major
Sonata No.2 in A minor
Sonata No.3 in G major
Sonata No.4 in E minor
Sonata No.5 in D major
Sonata No.6 in B minor
David Starobin (guitar)
rec. 2019, New York
BRIDGE 9567 
Since Matiegka is a relatively little-known figure, it seems sensible to begin with some biographical information. He was born (as Vaclav Tomás Matéjka) in Choceň, a town then in the kingdom of Bohemia (it is now in the Czech Republic). His maternal grandfather, Thomas Matiegka, was an organist and composer of sacred music, while his father, Jan, was a schoolmaster and director of the town chorus. He surely gave Wenzeslaus his introduction to music. As well, it seems, as introducing him to the violin and piano, he clearly encouraged him to sing, and in 1788 he entered, as a soprano, the seminary at Kroměříž, a city with a healthy musical tradition. While there, young Matiegka seems to have studied the violin with Franz Götz (1755-1815), a composer with a considerable reputation as a violinist. After this early schooling he studied law at the University of Prague from 1781, simultaneously taking piano lessons with Abbé Gelinek (1758-1825), the Czech-born pianist and composer who later worked in Vienna. He also worked to become a competent cellist. After completing his legal studies in Prague, Matiegka worked for Prince Ferdinand Bonaventura Kinsky (1781-1812), primarily in a legal capacity, though he also developed his skills as a pianist with the support of the Prince, who was a generous patron of the arts – Beethoven benefited from his patronage.
Matiegka moved to Vienna around 1800, living in the fashionable district of Leopoldstadt and supporting himself both by working as a clerk in a lawyer’s office and by giving piano lessons, while himself studying composition with Joseph Heidenreich (1753-1821). Having taken up the guitar, he soon involved himself in the rapidly growing popularity of the instrument in the city’s musical circles; as guitarist and scholar Paul Cesarczyk tells us in his excellent booklet notes “we can be sure that his circle of friends included Simon Molitor (1766-1848), Franz Tandler (1782-1806) and Wilhelm Klingenbrunner (1782-1850)”, all of whom where players of, and composers for, the guitar. Matiegka was soon giving guitar lessons as well as piano lessons. He was now writing music for the guitar, some of it no doubt intended for the use of his students. At first, he wrote a variety of dances, such as his Zwölf leichte Ländler (his Op.1), and didactic scores such as his 12 Pièces faciles, Op. 3 and his 6 Pièces progressives, Op.20. Gradually, perhaps as he began to give more public performances as a guitarist, he wrote more complex and demanding works. According to Cesarczyk, between 1805 and 1817 Matiegka published “thirty-one pieces with opus numbers and nine without, including twelve sonatas for guitar, chamber music, variations, didactic pieces, and serenades”. In 1817 Matiegka became director of music at St. Leopold’s Church (in Leopoldstadt) and later undertook the same role at St. Joseph’s Church, further out from the centre of the city. From then until his death from tuberculosis in 1830, Matiegka seems to have put all his energies as a composer into the writing of sacred music, including several masses. These remain unpublished, I believe.
Among Matiegka’s chamber works is his Notturno (Op.21). for flute, viola and guitar. Schubert made an arrangement (Deutsch 96) of this piece, adding only a part for cello and very largely leaving the rest of the sore untouched; that Matiegka’s music is in no way overshadowed by Schubert’s additions, and that the work was long thought to be wholly by Schubert, is an eloquent (if silent!) tribute to Matiegka’s skill as a composer.
That skill is richly evidenced in these six sonatas recorded by the consistently excellent David Starobin. It isn’t clear exactly when these six sonatas were written or, indeed, whether or not they were all written at much the same time. These doubts invite another question – how far were they conceived as a coherent set? The sequence of keys used might suggest that the six sonatas were, indeed, created as a unified set. I don’t, however, find this to be compelling evidence. The six sonatas vary a good deal in terms of the degree of proficiency needed to play them competently. They also vary in terms of their musical significance. So, for example, No.1 does not place great demands on the guitarist in terms of technique or interpretation and is relatively straightforward harmonically; No.3, on the other hand, is a good deal more complex in harmonic terms, while No.5 is, in Paul Cesarczyk’s phrase, “distinctly Mozartian” and No.6 is the most ambitious of the set, both in its range of expression and the use of counterpoint. Without having seriously studied the scores, I suspect that in putting the set together for publication, Matiegka may have made use of earlier works (perhaps with some revision) and also included new compositions.
I had heard only one recording of these Op.31 sonatas prior to listening to this new recording: that was the version by Giulio Tampalini included in his 7-CD set of Matiegka’s Complete Music for Solo Guitar (Brilliant Classics BC94335), released in April 2019. I intend no offence to Signor Tampalini in saying that I didn’t then realise quite what fine music these six sonatas contained. Some of Giulio Tampalini’s playing now seems to me rather hurried; he doesn’t do full justice (as Starobin does) to a passage like the serioso opening of No.4. His tone is less consistently beautiful than that of Starobin. The Brilliant set is, however, well worth having for all the other solo works it contains.
Starobin’s readings bring out the distinct character of each sonata. In the course of a promotional video (YouTube), Starobin offers succinct descriptions of the personality of each sonata, describing the first as “really volatile”, the second as “tragic”, No.3 as “bright, very sweet”, No.4 as “stormy, very original in formal development”, the fifth as displaying “a blend of influences from Haydn and Mozart” and the last as “almost neo-baroque”. Given their brevity, these verbal descriptions are inevitably no more than partial characterisations. It is in listening to Starobin’s performances that one acquires a full sense of these works – the performances being precise (but not fussy) in their articulation of the structural unity of each sonata, aptly varied in tone and colour and beautifully phrased throughout.
Take No.3, for example. Like all the other five sonatas it is in three movements. Initially the opening Allegro moderato is contentedly graceful, but before long some unexpected modulations question any sense of such assurance, until a closing re-statement of the opening motif puts an end to any incipient sense of conflict. All this is articulated with winning clarity by Starobin, who contrives a sense of definitive emphasis in the final re-statement without any sense of over-emphasis or empty rhetoric. The central movement is designated a Minuet but, as Paul Cesarczyk observes, it might be “better understood as a scherzo”. The movement is dominated by an insistent rhythmic pattern. All of this disappears with the closing Rondo, which is full of the spirit of the dance, but not of the courtly minuet. What we have here, rather, is a happy (one might say innocent) country dance. The range of moods across the sonata is interesting and Starobin’s playing makes all the necessary distinctions and transitions without the slightest sense of anything being forced – it all feels both well-structured and almost organic.
When it comes to No.6 – a resounding conclusion to Matiegka’s Op.3, and therefore to this disc – David Starobin’s concise characterisation of it as “almost neo-baroque” rings true in terms of the composer’s sustained and complex contrapuntal writing (this is no music for beginning guitarists), but Paul Cesarczyk’s observation, in his booklet notes, that “Its agitated descending sequences and dramatic pauses are fully in the Sturm und Drang style” says something of equal importance about the sonata. Its three movements are marked “Allegro molto”, “Scherzo: Allegro molto” and “Finale: Allegretto”. There is a compulsive, almost obsessive, quality to much of the writing. The first movement is built around a five-note motif which is manipulated inventively by Matiegka. There are episodes of quasi-martial music; eventually the building tension is released, at least temporarily, by the movement’s slower, redemptive conclusion. The scherzo which follows is also intensely repetitive, with an ascending pattern recurring almost relentlessly, coming and going in multiple voices. The closing movement is still very ‘busy’, but less intensely so than the two previous movements. There is a greater sense of space and the close seems to speak of a journey full of rich experiences brought to a controlled and forward-looking conclusion.
Matiegka was not the first to write sonatas for the guitar during the years of Vienna’s ‘craze’ for the instrument. That honour probably belongs to Simon Molitor with his Grosse Sonate of 1807; other composers who wrote guitar sonatas included Anton Diabelli and Mauro Giuliani. There is, however, something special about these six sonatas by Matiegka.
David Starobin is quoted, on the website of Bridge Records as describing these sonatas as “in their time, the pinnacle of expression on the guitar, offering the most detailed notation of both articulation and character–a clear window onto performance style in the era of Beethoven and Schubert.” I think that is a judgement which few who listen attentively to this disc will wish to contradict.
This recording should be heard by all who love the classical guitar repertoire.
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