With scarcely a pause at the end of his complete cycle of the Bach cantatas, to which we shall be turning our attention here shortly, the ever enterprising and highly energetic Ton Koopman has now reached Volumes III and IV of the complete works (Opera Omnia) of Dieterich Buxtehude, who lived from about 1637 to 1707. We examine both this month. This is a huge undertaking: the website Koopman has set up (using the French version of his name!) suggests it will stretch to nearly two dozen volumes. It's not been done before and promises to make available much wonderful music by a leading exponent thereof. It's a very significant event and the auspices look extremely good so far for quality, presentation and scholarship.
Volume III contains "Organ Works 1"; it's just over an hour of splendid, inspiring and adventurous music of Buxtehude played by Koopman in recordings made just this time last year in St. Nicolai Kirche, Altenbruch on the Coci/Klapmeyer organ, which was begun in 1498, built upon and improved over the next 250 years or so, and restored again as recently as four to five years ago. The the Coci/Klapmeyer is considered a unique and venerable instrument and is tuned to Werckmeister temperament (mostly pure fifths; thirds less so than with meantone). It's also an ideal instrument for the later works of Buxtehude, which is what we have on this CD… robust, forthright and exploiting the extroversion of the stylus fantasticus. So no need to transpose Buxtehude's works here.
More than likely a pupil of his father in Helsingør, Buxtehude son inherited his old post at Helsingborg but in 1660 moved to back to the Marienkirche in Helsingør, thence – at the age of just 30 – to the Marienkirche in Lübeck on the death of Franz Tunder in 1667, a post he held for the next four decades. Although we have no identifiable organ works from Buxtehude's pre-Lübeck years, we do know that he composed music for the instrument throughout his life. While at Lübeck Buxtehude had three quite different organs to work with; and, although their sounds and characteristics influenced the composer, it's obvious from the presence in some of his works of low notes unavailable to him on any of those instruments that they must have been intended for performance elsewhere. Into the bargain we have no dates for his organ compositions and stylistic considerations (particularly those of harmony and counterpoint) have to be relied upon for a sense of progression and sequence.
It is clear which of Buxtehude's organ compositions are his most mature, then. And it's some of these that we can enjoy on this CD. They're also compositions that tend to the adventurous harmonically and were written to take the innovations in temperament and tuning introduced by Andreas Werckmeister at the time into account. They may come as something of a surprise to those unfamiliar with a composer dead before Bach had really reached adulthood. But they can hardly fail to inspire and please. There are five types of organ composition on "Organ Works 1":
Particular highlights are the opening Praeludium, BuxWV 146, which is Bach-like in scope; rhythmic, packed with surprises and forward movement, it makes a great introduction to the sinewy flavor of what Koopman is to present us with. In contrast Ach Herr, mich armen Sünde BuxWV 178 is reflective, quiet, understated in every way. Koopman's playing really emphasizes the sound and intimacy of the instrument; it's less lightness of touch, more an imperturbable familiarity with the rises and falls of the melody that makes this – and the BuxWV 160 chaconne – so convincing.
If unfamiliar with the repertoire, the variety and inventiveness of Buxtehude's organ compositions will strike you as much as the beauty of his counterpoint, congruence between texture and tune and, perhaps almost more than everything, Buxtehude's dignified composure in developing and savoring each new idea in an unhurried and almost detached way. What is needed to appreciate this to the full for the listener is a performer fully in sympathy with the need not even to try and "persuade", still less to "insist", but rather to lay out. This is Ton Koopman. And nowhere more clearly than in the longest piece at nearly twelve and a half minutes in this splendid CD, the chorale fantasy, Nun freut euch lieben Christen g'mein BuxWV 210. The end result is that no matter how often you listen to it, it's as if for the first time. Koopman has in his head the same sense of inevitability of structure and unfolding as Buxtehude. And it's that inevitability and calmness that are communicated.
The sequence of piece on the hour's worth of music presented here is arranged such that there is as much contrast as concentration on any one of the types of composition mentioned. This is as good a way as any but at times it has the feel more of a recital than a survey of the Opera Omnia. Perhaps no bad thing: it's also the interpretation of Koopman that persuades us here just how significant a figure Buxtehude is. Although that "significance" has all too often been thought of hitherto in terms of an "influence" on other composers, notably Bach and Handel, nowhere does Koopman better demonstrate that Buxtehude is an original composer in his own right than in the work that ends this first of two organ discs, the Toccata in F BuxWV 156, which he plays with great panache… leaps, robust counterpoint, exciting ornamentations and a real sense of drive. For some this maybe at the expense of scrupulous slavery to the score. From the president of the International Dieterich Buxtehude Society, that's admissible; indeed it brings the music more alive.
Koopman's playing throughout then, it hardly need be said, is accomplished and vivacious, imbued with great sensitivity to the world and endeavors of Buxtehude and highly communicative. His assured and technically brilliant exposition of the complexities and depths of the dozen works, which range in length from just under two minutes (Von Gott will ich nicht lassen) to the grandeur of the aforementioned Nun freut euch lieben Christen, make this a CD that can be unreservedly recommended. The liner notes are full of interest and go a long way towards setting the context for Buxtehude's organ works. The recording is atmospheric and complete with a "Cimbelstern" (dainty high-pitched "bell") stop.
Copyright © 2007, Mark Sealey