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John Butt's important new recording Johann Kuhnau: the Biblical Sonatas (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907133, rec 1995) offers lively interpretations of these celebrated programmatic pieces. Kuhnau appears to have been a man of wide interests and abilities, conversant with languages, law and mathematics as well as music. He was also a writer, and held the appointment of organist and eventually cantor at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. As Butt says, he was by no means the `dull and somewhat pedantic predecessor of J. S. Bach' that he is sometimes imagined to have been.
Kuhnau published the six Biblical Sonatas in 1700, often cited as the first examples of programme music. The composer himself acknowledged a debt to Froberger and `other excellent authors' who wrote descriptive keyboard pieces. Kuhnau's, however, are true programme music: each sonata is prefaced by a narrative (in German) recounting a particular incident from the Old Testament, and each movement is headed by a verbal description (in Italian) of what it depicts. The listener must of course be aware of the programme, and some, such as Leonhardt in his 1970 recording, actually recite it in the course of playing. (Leonhardt even includes the lengthy German preface.) Though this can work well in live performance, it is probably better on a recording simply to trust the listener to read the accompanying notes, as is done here.
One of the …