Ton Koopman's extended series of CD sets containing all the extant works of Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707) continues with two CDs – generously timed at 73 and 74 minutes – of the composer's vocal works. This volume (Opera Omnia VII) is the third in this sequence of the vocal works… Opera Omnia II and Opera Omnia V are the others so far issued. On this Vocal Works 3 comes a collection of sixteen arias, cantatas and sacred concertos – the genre which emerged in Italy about 40 years before Buxtehude was born.
The order and provenance of Buxtehude's works is not well known or understood. Though it can safely be assumed that the composer no longer concentrated purely on writing for the organ, as he had been obliged to do while at the two posts he held in Helsingborg and Helsinger before coming to Lübeck, in 1668. There he must have had to follow the practice of his not inconsiderably gifted, though these days neglected predecessor, Franz Tunder (1614-1667), and provide sacred vocal and choral music for St. Mary's Church. From the way Koopman performs each piece here, it's difficult to think that Buxtehude approached this work with anything other than delight.
It seems likely that such duties also resulted in up to five oratorios, not a note of any of which has survived; although we have the libretti, and of course the titles. Perhaps that should make us all the more grateful for the choral music which we do have. And appreciative of the enterprise of Koopman and Challenge Classics in making such an accomplished, perceptive and interpretatively special consolidated corpus available.
In common with the other CDs in this series, Koopman's recordings here are authoritative without being in any way perfunctory; lively and vivacious without a hint of the extraneous; profound yet not at all ponderous. These works have the dignity and at times the inspiration – almost – of Bach. A work like "Ich habe Lust" [CD.1 tr.5] certainly has comparable pathos and depth. Yet the organ and lute accompaniments confer a gentleness and sweetness that make such wrenching sentiments ("I wish to leave [the earth] to be with my God") approachable, comprehensible and immediate!
Koopman's treatment of these works is typical of his music-making in general. He is not interested in producing a catalog. Still less a "sampler". Here is music – most of it sacred – qua music, worthy of attention in its own right. In his concise and informative essay for the set, Christoph Wolff makes the point that it was Buxtehude's natural creativity, technical skills and innovative scoring (listen to the dulcian in "Auf, Stimmet die Saiten" [CD.1 tr.6], for example) that combine to make his vocal writing so striking. He effectively wrested the concerto and aria from any restrictions of form which may have otherwise held them back. He then fashioned north German prototypes that were sufficiently robust, flexible and fluid to last for many generations. Indeed, out of these two forms came the cantata – of which there are two striking examples here.
The aria was an accompanied song, typically beginning with an instrumental passage followed by multiple stanzas of a poem with varied scoring. "Mein Gemüt efreuet sich" [CD.2 tr.1] is the most expansive and glorious example here… we see multiple, carefully used and highly effective compositional techniques employed by a Buxtehude who was by now completely confident in the medium. The playing of Koopman with the Amsterdam Baroque Choir and Orchestra do it full justice.
The concerto, on the other hand, adds modern text (prose) to a biblical burden. This amalgam tends to segment the works – an easy step to cantata-like alternation. The scale is usually grander than in the aria. "Nun danket alle Gott" [CD.1 tr.3] is a particularly expansive example. It must not be played awash with reverberation and rhetoric. But should come across as concentrated, humble almost. This Koopman achieves particularly well. Just the right tempi, texture and forward motion for the piece to reveal all its strength and majesty.
The playing on this set has a serenity, a spaciousness and a confidence that seems greater in some ways than on earlier offerings in Koopman's series. The soloists and choir in particular play with an attack, an engagement, that bespeaks more than growing familiarity with Buxtehude's idiom. The musicians clearly respond to Buxtehude's warmth mixed with his own expansive feelings of being at home in these genres to express what he was so earnest to express… devotion, contentment, longing and so on. Koopman captures these very well indeed. One feels he has energy to spare even in his most energetic expression of the music's progression.
The full texts are there in German and English. The recording is, of course, first class: close, warm, rich and miked so as to bring out all the nuances without losing the effects of the ways in which Koopman's forces combine to make Buxtehude's genius clear; but not in any way rendering it self-aggrandizing – striking (especially to those unfamiliar with it) though it certainly is. Those already collecting this multi-volume set will snap up this latest offering right away. Lovers of the German Baroque should not hesitate. Others who want to hear expressively played examples of a composer whose originality, profundity and musicality are second, perhaps, only to those of Bach would do well to buy this pair of CDs immediately.
Copyright © 2009, Mark Sealey