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Dietrich BUXTEHUDE (1637-1707)
Complete Chamber Music Volume 1
Seven Sonatas Op 1: No.1 in F; No.2 in G; No.3 in A minor; No.4 in Bb major; No.5 in C major; No.6 in D minor; No.7 in E minor Bux WV 252-258
John Holloway, violin; Jaap ter Linden, viola da gamba; Lars Ulrik Mortensen, cembalo
rec. Kastelkirken, Copenhagen, June/July 1994. DDD
NAXOS 8.557248 [57.32]

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Originally released in 1995 on the Danish Da Capo label this disc marks the continuation of Naxos’s commitment to Buxtehude following on from their complete organ music project. It is often said that any musician who the great J.S. Bach though it worth walking 300 miles to hear must be worthy our attention. For myself I used to be sceptical of that story but now, having reviewed a few Buxtehude discs and having heard other works, I feel that the great J.S. was quite right. It must be remembered however that it was Buxtehude’s organ improvisations that especially attracted Bach. Now, if only we could hear those. Nevertheless Buxtehude did write considerable quantities of chamber music and it is of high quality and interest.

The first really significant recording was by Trio Sonnerie directed by Monica Huggett on the ASV label in 1986. An LP originally the programme incorporated pieces from both Opp. 1 and 2. This was good because, as we are reminded in the excellent if rather analytical booklet essay by Niels Martin Jensen, Buxtehude regarded the two volumes as a complete unit.

This new CD gives us an opportunity to hear just the Op. 1 set - Op. 2 will soon follow - and one can assess the astonishing variety that the fifty year old composer created. Mr Jensen’s essay gives us not only an excellent potted biography but also a quite detailed analysis of each sonata, movement by movement. I followed these notes assiduously whilst listening and was glad that I did.

Buxtehude’s only major publications in his lifetime were of chamber music. These took place between 1694 and 1696. The seven books of sonatas show a fusion of influences from South Europe to the North via Paris. The Italian influence brings with it demanding idiomatic writing for violin. Dramatic effects derived ‘style rappresentative’ also appear imparting a sense of the music telling a story. The English contributed the virtuoso viol tradition and the fantasy and fantasy-suite forms. The German and Austrian traditions contributed fugal and contrapuntal movements in which the composer could show off his polyphonic skills.

The sonatas are made up of contrasting sections of varying number and length. Some are dances and some are variations with recitative-like transitional passages or simple showy bursts of passagework in a style now commonly known as ‘stylus phantasticus’. The gamba plays a true obbligato part, completely independent of the harpsichord’s basso continuo. In fast movements the texture is in two real parts with, some of the time, the bass playing a simplified version of the solo part. Almost every sonata has an ostinato bass movement whether in the form of chaconne-like repetitions or of harmonic passages. The Op. 1 no. 2 in G major is typical. It starts with a sonorous introduction marked lento but only three bars long. This leads directly into a lively fugal vivace. There is then a chromatic adagio which goes into a compound time allegro in the relative minor, based on a flourish of arpeggios in the violin. The ensuing largo, which is full of delicious suspensions, brings us back to G major. An arioso with variations explores the possibilities of an eight-bar repeated bass line which is where the sonata ends.

Although it is the first sonata that I have briefly analysed, I need to add that despite the fact that each sonata is made up of these short sectional ‘sound-bites’ each is also utterly different and distinctly original. Buxtehude had such a lot to say musically, that he never repeats himself or his formulae.

I am in full agreement with the ‘American Record Guide’ which is quoted on the back of the CD case: “It is difficult to imagine a better recording of these pieces” and I would add emphatically, “and, of course, a better performance”.

The fertile world of these seven sonatas is not esoteric or challenging but joyous and clever and life-enhancing, so that the more you listen the more you hear.

Gary Higginson



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