Ton Koopman's excellent series of the complete works of Buxtehude (1637/39?-1707) has reached Volume XII, or about half way, and the first CD of chamber music – the sonatas for one, two or three stringed instruments with continuo. This music is even less well known than much of the rest of Buxtehude's output. Koopman and the members of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra do us a great service in making such recommendable versions available. They're not unrecorded, though, as one might think: Holloway, Weiss, Mortensen's reissue on Naxos 8.557250 of the Dacapo release from the tercentenary of Buxtehude's death in 2007 is a worthy comparison.
By now, Buxtehude's idiom is in Koopman's blood. The delicate balance between a springy jauntiness as the strings toss melodic and rhythmic themes amongst themselves and the continuo is a delight. The crystalline color of the textures… gentle yet uncompromising in their purity continually thrills. The moments of marked rubato surprise. A real and commanding sense of the very dynamic architecture of each sonata, and the consequent balance of tempi, tonality and even instrumental combination, convince us we're in very sure hands.
The musicians' awareness and ability to penetrate to the music's essences make for a very lively and varied set of performances indeed. And a very enjoyable one. There is an hour of music here – eight sonatas, the longest (BuxWV 273) lasting three times as long (13 minutes) as the shortest, BuxWV 268 (4½ minutes) – apart from the organ transcription of a sonata, BuxWV Anh.5, which is only three minutes long.
But these are far from trivial miniatures. As so often is the case with Buxtehude, who lived from 1637 (or 1639) to 1707 and inspired a generation of composers, including J.S. Bach, who famously traveled hundreds of miles to visit the older composer and overstayed the time which he was officially given to do so, there is a huge world, almost, in a small sphere. And Koopman with five Members of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra (David Rabinovich, violin; Catherine Manson, violin; Jonathan Manson, viola da gamba; Christine Sticher, violone and Mike Fentross, lute) make the most of it through a style of playing that's as subtle as it is determined, as fresh as it is stylish, and as perceptive as it is light of touch.
Unlike other of Buxtehude's works, the majority of his chamber works were published during his lifetime. Yet most were forgotten and have remained for the most part unplayed since the early eighteenth century. There are 22 such works; this suggests another two CDs from Challenge during 2011, although Koopman hasn't always followed genre with like genre. In the past, there have been some double CD sets. In any case, the works on the present CD exist only in manuscript sources.
They are all virtuoso works in the then fashionable stylus phantasticus mode. It's hard to resist the temptation to assume that they were written partly for contemporary players known to the composer to be able to benefit from the creativity, exuberance and sheer fun of their inventiveness. Again, though, it'd be wrong to suggest that the sonatas are lightweight. There is pathos, energetic emotion, contrast; these pull you up short for their power of suggestion and some moments of rich melancholy. These musicians more than have the measure of this idiom and bring us with them from first note to last.
This recording – made in the Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam – has the same clear and uncluttered acoustic on this single CD as have others in that location, already released. The booklet and Christoph Wolff's notes add to our experience in all the ways that we have come to expect from this important enterprise, particularly in providing insightful background on the works. If you're collecting the series, you won't hesitate. If this is an as yet unilluminated corner of the repertoire, the music's originality, blend of sophistication and openness are more than likely to captivate you. Thoroughly recommended.
Copyright © 2011, Mark Sealey.