Here is the latest in Ton Koopman's outstanding series, which will probably stretch to about two dozen CD sets, containing the entire oevre of Dieterich Buxtehude, arguably the greatest north German composer before Bach. It's often a gamble to assign such enterprises to one person… narrowness of interpretation, background, approach and perspective are the fears. But the facts that Koopman is heading the Buxtehude Opera Omnia project and that he is using his highly-respected Amsterdam Orchestra and Choir for the instrumental and vocal volumes mean that such an approach is far more of an asset than a liability.
For the solo organ works (Organ Works 3) which make up the single hour and six minutes of this, Opera Omnia VIII, CD Koopman is the sole performer, of course. It may be fanciful to detect a greater verve, attack, confidence even, in his playing than was evident in the first two of the organ CDs, the Opera Omnia III and Opera Omnia IV. But such works as the Ciacona, BuxWV 159, [tr.6] and the Praeludium in G, BuxWV 148, [tr.7] have a jauntiness about them which clearly suggests that Koopman is enjoying himself!
Why shouldn't he enjoy himself? This is splendid, at times majestic, open, forceful and somewhat grand music. The fact that it's here played on the Schnitger organ in Hamburg's Jacobi-Kirche surely helps. As clearly does Koopman's own lightly-worn scholarship into manuscript provenance, history, authenticity and thus the likely relationships between pieces, ornamentation, arranging and – ultimately – performance practice.
Indeed, the performances on this CD are uniformly excellent and inspiring. Where fire and vigor are needed (the "Fugue in B", BuxWV 176 [tr.9], for instance), Koopman seems to have them in reserve. Where restraint and tenderness ("Es spricht der Unweisen Mund wohl", BuxWV 187, [tr.8], for example) are more appropriate, he can switch and stop us in our tracks and bring us with him without either over-sentimentalizing or indulging. In such matters as tempi, how extensively to use the pedal and so on it seems likely that Buxtehude left much up to the performer. What sounds the best? What sounds right? Koopman makes these judgements with wisdom, from experience and based – presumably – on the acoustic, the ambiance. And on what is likely to result in the cleanest recorded sound.
We really are in Koopman's (ultra-capable) hands, then: standards in organ building were only really introduced in the nineteenth century; none of the organs which Buxtehude played survives. There was a perhaps quite bewildering wide variety of instrumental construction in Buxtehude's day. Interpretation thus counts for just as much in this case as it does in other spheres of Baroque music. It would be an exaggeration to suggest that Buxtehude left a skeleton onto which (modern) performers – such as Koopman, here – put the skin. But there is a gap between what the composer obviously intended as an ideal, and what was possible in terms of the capacities of the instruments of his day. So, Yes, there is ample scope for experts like Koopman to make the music his own; or – rather – to present it to us as his interpretation, with his stamp. And this is what he does so successfully and with real vision. It is Buxtehude we are hearing, though: Koopman is a selfless musician! Buxtehude has too much weight and gentle power to be overshadowed. And Koopman knows this.
There are five distinct types of music on this CD: the pedaliter preludes, BuxWV 137, 140, 145, 148 and 149; the larger scale preludes in Buxtehude's stylus fantasticus (the Italian-influenced expansive free range compositional method), BuxWV 159, 176 and 225; the multi movement chorale variations, BuxWV 179, 213, 214 and 215; and the chorale preludes, BuxWV 183, 185, 187, 193, 200. As you listen to the music, the contrasts and progressions of each compositional type seem more satisfying than the delights of the last – climaxing, perhaps, in the majestic "Nun lob mein Seel", BuxWV 214/5/3 [tr.12]. The order in which you listen to the pieces here aids in appreciation of the sheer variety of Buxtehude's invention.
So there is a sense in which Koopman has recorded a recital. It has shape and momentum. Yet, without undue didacticism, the works here are presented not as samplers, but as illustrative – most of all of Buxtehude's genius. His was a genius that consisted in variety, then; and in insight, great beauty and understated profundity. Buxtehude's was a profundity quite different from that of Bach – humbler, less self-aware; yet every bit as enduring and full of musicality; every bit as inventive, striking and memorable. These are the qualities which Koopman brings out – yet through rigor and an almost self-effacing attention to technique, rather than feeling that he has to have Buxtehude make any kind of splash for us.
So here is another volume to be bought immediately if you are collecting this series, which is truly to be treasured. A volume which will otherwise open your ears to perhaps unfamiliar delights. And a volume which displays interpretative and technical prowess quite out of the ordinary in the playing of Koopman. Cleanly and sensitively recorded in a way that enhances, rather than tries to overcome, the acoustic – and with a useful booklet, this CD is warmly recommended in every way.
Copyright © 2009, Mark Sealey