It's not long since the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir under Ton Koopman finished their ten-year-long series of all the Bach cantatas on 22 CDs for Challenge. Now they're planning an equally massive (30 CDs) undertaking – the entire output of the astonishing and underperformed Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707), the leading North German/Danish composer from the generation before Bach. This is planned to take five years. Apart from the fact that 2007 is the tercentenary of Buxtehude's death, this undertaking is welcome on at least three counts:
We're now at Volume II, the first of the vocal works. Volume I contained the first set of harpsichord works; Volume III and IV have the organ works 1 and 2; and Volume V the second set of vocal works. We shall be looking in detail as this discs are released. This interleaving of genres and the inclusion so near the start of the series of a work only accepted to be "almost certainly" by Buxtehude speaks encouragingly to the ambitiously comprehensive, unpressured and perhaps exploratory nature of this project.
Buxtehude's reputation as a composer extended also to his teaching, playing (he was a consummate organist) and talents as impresario in his native Lübeck… his Abendmusiken (musical evenings) were held each year on the five Sundays (after the sermon at Vespers) between St. Martin's Day (November 12) and Christmas Day – perhaps the earliest ever public concerts to be held in a church. It was to attend one of these Abendmusiken that Bach made his celebrated trek in 1705.
Probably begun by Buxtehude's predecessor, Franz Tunder, it was nevertheless Buxtehude who really developed these occasions into something noteworthy, raised money from the local town "worthies" and established the events so firmly that they could continue right up until the time of Beethoven. Despite the fact that Buxtehude held the office that allowed this entrepreneurial effort to work so well, only three manuscripts which we know to have been composed for these Abendmusiken survive from his period.
It is the style of the oratorio, Wacht! Euch zum Streit gefasset macht, and the fact that its sources can be found with other authenticated works by Buxtehude (in the collection of the Stockholm Hofkepellmeister, Gustav Düben – today the Uppsala University Library) that account for its inclusion here.
Wacht! Euch zum Streit gefasset macht was only published as late as 1939, under the title Das Jüngsten Gericht, "The Last Judgement", though in a five part arrangement, presumably with the intention of recalling Buxtehude's Abendmusiken formats. Koopman details just how much of the recording which we hear in this recording is strict reconstruction from an alternative source, how much is suggestion by colleagues in The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Chorus and how much has actually had to be written by Koopman himself. Over and above the enjoyable nature of this music, you may allow your reservations to be set aside by Koopman's assertion, "I express myself carefully by describing the work as "attributed to Buxtehude"; personally, however, I see no room for doubt."
For this recording Ton Koopman has reverted to a three-part arrangement. Das Jüngsten Gericht is in some ways written in an operatic style: in Act I the singers are assigned to allegorical figures, Greed, Heedlessness and Pride (the three sopranos) and God (bass). In Acts II and III there is less consistency and no such assignment. Not that this work is in any way unsatisfying. The argument moves forward clearly and with interest. And the soloists and instrumentalists of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra (limited to two violins, two violas and continuo with additional trombones ad libitum) do more than merely support what is far from a dry or obscure biblical homily. Instead, there is passion, drive, regret, commitment, the obligatory solicitude, melancholy and the kind of joy that can only follow such sadness. This is just as well for there is a larger than usual role for them to play – an above average number of purely instrumental movements. The score consists of many types of compositional technique… the aria (still something of a novelty), ornate chorales, accompaniment and "sonatas".
Again, this in no way leads to the perception of an imbalance, but – despite an at times "ragged" text – you enjoy a work whose composition has been carried through with grace and conviction. The businesslike yet precise articulation of movements like the Schluß Aria, "Menschen-Kinder, schnappet nach dem Schatten nicht", may seem a little too perfunctory, but it ends a listening experience that's whole and moving, complete and communicative: these forces admirably suit the written score. Although one might feel that the dramatic potential would have been more spectacularly developed by a Bach or a Handel, a Biber or even a Schmelzer. There is something in Buxtehude's musical character that makes it unnecessary to underline what is already writ large: the aria "O tausendmal selige, frölige Stunden!", for example, nevertheless has a Monteverdian spring to it lending it contrast and tension and a real sense of dénouement.
It is one of the many strengths of Koopman's approach and that of his specialist forces that they are so completely in tune with this idiom. Shirt-sleeves up, eyes forward and sing and play your hearts out. Though not in any unrestrained, overpowering or crass way. It's delicate, thoughtful – though very down-to-earth – music-making. The way, for example, in which the three sopranos, Caroline Stam, Orlanda Velez Isidro and Johanette Zomer, glide and pace their way through the two movements, "Die Leichtfertigkeit" and "Die Hoffarth" ("Wantonness" and "Pride"), near the start of Act I is typical: an invitation, not exhortation, to consider the negative aspects of such "behavior". Yet sung in such a way that it had better not be ignored – for your sake as much as for God's (who may not even be listening, having grown used to such promises)! In other words, very human – but dignified.
The playing of the members of the orchestra is excellent. Never dragging; beautifully carved from the score; just the right momentum forward (and references back) at all times. The recording, if anything, may be considered just a tiny bit on the dry side, despite the venue – the Waalse Kerk in Amsterdam. But this aids the listener in focusing attention on the music. The booklet is full, informative and contains complete texts and translations into English from the German. If this is to be the standard set for this important venture, it will be fulfilling, exciting and each release will be eagerly expected. Thoroughly recommended.
Copyright © 2007, Mark Sealey