Despite Bach's famed pilgrimage to learn from the venerated figure of the North German School, Dieterich Buxtehude (1637/39-1707) two years before the latter's death, it may be thought that the music of the older composer could never sustain the nearly two dozen CD sets which Ton Koopman and his vocal and instrumental forces from Amsterdam have been releasing and plan to release for a year or so yet to comprise Buxtehude's whole surviving output. Previous Classical Net reviews of the cycle have been unreservedly favorable. And now we reach Volume XVII, the seventh set dedicated to the composer's vocal works. (A review of Volume XVIII follows next month.)
Those unfamiliar with Buxtehude and the style of the dozen and a half arias, chorale settings and sacred concerti admirably performed here may be surprised: above all there are variety, conviction and beauty… in fact Buxtehude's contributions as exposed here reflect all major vocal genres that obtained in the Lutheran church world of the (late) seventeenth century.
Chorales which originated in the church hymnal over the previous hundred years and more predominate in this Volume; the CDs' selection reflects Buxtehude's preference for the older works by Luther himself. Incidentally, no such compositions from the last 20 years of the composer's life have survived. Several of those presented here can, though, be precisely dated. The works tend to be substantial, most ranging in length from five to thirteen minutes. This accounts to some extent for their extended, apparently exploratory and satisfyingly-weighty character. It's also Buxtehude's great originality, ability to narrow down the compass of confessional focus (as did Luther and others) and then examine it through the text to convey a deep emotional certainty.
Even though your starting point in approaching Buxtehude's works here may be admiration for Koopman's scholarship in sourcing, aggregating and preparing performing editions of them, you'll quickly be drawn into the often rich inner musical world. But this is a world which is always faithful to, and in integral celebration of, the religious occasion or principle; yet without relying on dogma or any kind of rote. The personal response is made as valid and persuasive as the doctrinal or biblical stimulus. This, too, is one of the strengths of Koopman's performance.
In addition to the poetic exposition, these accounts often contain surprises – as at the repeated staccato affirmations in the "Amen" at the end of Schwinget euch himmelan [CD.1 tr. 3]. But there is never superficiality; solemnity never overpowers invention. Koopman's conceptions here reflect what was clearly a very lively and original musical soul and mind.
At the same time, the articulation and delivery of the singers never relies on declamation or rhetoric to convey the dedication, faith – and yet the humanity – of Buxtehude's adaptation of such a variety of texts. Listen to the enunciation of Maarten Engeltjes' alto and Klaus Mertens' bass in Mit Fried- und Freudenreiche [CD.1. tr.5]: there is plangency without maudlin, regret without (self) pity and honor without adulation. These can only come from a thorough familiarity with, and understanding of, both the texts themselves, and Buxtehude's approach to them.
One of the more remarkable aspect of these performances is their blend of precision and approachability: listen to the repeated cries, "Ich" in O wie selig [CD.1 tr 6]… "It's I that have been chosen and so can rejoice for ever." For as much as there is spontaneity and elevation in the musical response to the text, there is a sense that – because the joy is lasting – it needs no spurious re-inforcing: restraint (expressed in a delicate exactness) better conveys the singers' broadest response to that.
In common with earlier releases in this series, the Waalse Kerk in Amsterdam has been used. Its acoustic is intimate and warm without for a moment obscuring the extreme clarity of Koopman's vocal or instrumental soloists. In particular, the soundstage respects high as well as low registers… the strings and joyful sopranos, Gerlinde Sämann and Dorothee Wohlgemuth, towards the end of All solch dein Güt' [CD.1 tr.2], for example. With the CD comes the usual meticulously-produced booklet with notes on the music by Christoph Wolff and a brief essay by and about the ever thoughtful Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir with full texts in German/Latin and English translation. If you've been collecting this series, it almost goes without saying that you'll want this seventeenth volume; there are only three remaining. If you have never quite got to grips with Buxtehude and want performances of his profound and affecting music that are as good as any currently available, you can rely on these recordings without hesitation.
Copyright © 2014, Mark Sealey