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Dietrich BUXTEHUDE (c.1637-1707)
Vocal Music Vol. 2

Das neugeborne Kindelein, BuxWV 13 [7:14]
Der Herr ist mir, BuxWV 15 [8:09]
Fürwahr, er trug unsere Krankheit, BuxWV 31 [12:34]
Alles, was ihr tut, BuxWV 4 [14:21]
Magnificat anima mea, BuxWV Anh.1 [8:45]
John Reuter (bass)
Copenhagen Royal Chapel Choir
The Dufay Collective/Ebbe Munk
rec. 12-14 June, 2000, Vejleå Church, Ishøj, Denmark
Texts and translations available online.
NAXOS 8.570494 [51:02]
Experience Classicsonline

This second volume in the Naxos series of Buxtehude’s vocal music was previously issued on Dacapo (Dacapo 8.224160). It is made up of four sacred cantatas – and one ‘interloper’, a setting of the Magnificat mistakenly identified as Buxtehude’s back in 1931 by Bruno Grusnick, but pretty certainly not his.

The four cantatas give us the chance to hear Buxtehude employing a variety of strategies.

Das neugeborne Kindelein sets the four verses of a Christmas hymn first published in 1588 by Cyriacus Schneegass (1546-1597), German hymn-writer, composer and music theorist. The words have a simple radiance, each of the four stanzas made up of four lines rhymed aabb. Buxtehude treats them interestingly; he adopts different approaches for each of the four stanzas. In the first he sets the opening three lines, the initial announcement of the recurrent ‘new’ birth of Christ and its significance, relatively plainly, allowing the words to dominate and hold the attention. Then, as if to celebrate the significance of the words of proclamation, the final line of Schneegass’s first stanza is richly elaborated through repetition and contrapuntal echo. Between each stanza we get an instrumental ritornello and after its first return, the second stanza offers yet more vocal elaboration and responds beautifully to the text’s assertion that the angels are singing in the sky, a response heightened by a greater use of instrumental accompaniment interwoven with the vocal phrases than was allowed to happen in the first stanza. The third stanza speaks of the battle against “Teufel, Welt und Höllenpfort” and the sense of conflict is heightened by much greater use of instrumental interjections which break up the vocal phrases and the lines of the verse. In the fourth stanza, as the text grows to a full realisation that the birth of “das Jesuslein” guarantees the possibility of human salvation, the musical metre changes and the instruments and voices work more obviously together, so that verse, voice and instruments embody, in their new relationship, the transformation into coherent meaning of which the hymn speaks. Buxtehude, in short, has integrated text, singers and instrumental ensemble with a completeness of achieved purpose that makes Das neugeborne Kindelein a minor masterpiece.

In Der Herr ist mit mir the text is taken from the Psalms (Psalm 118 verses 6-7). In the Authorized Version it reads thus: “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear: what can man do unto me. The Lord taketh my part with them that help me: therefore shall I see my desire upon them that hate me”. To the German translation of these verses is added a concluding ‘Hallelujah’. Buxtehude sets the Psalm text in predominantly homophonic fashion, the text remaining clearly and emphatically audible, its meaning emphasised by some patterned rhythmic and harmonic touches. With the ‘Hallelujah’ Buxtehude launches into a virtuoso ciacona made up of nineteen variations over two-bar ostinato bass. The contrast with what has gone before is startling and exciting.

The most dramatically expressive work here is Fürwahr, er trug unsere Krankheit, setting verses from Isaiah prophetic of the crucifixion. There is some powerful instrumental writing and Buxtehude’s music articulates a powerful response to the idea of the Passion; the writing, both for the bass soloist and for the chorus, as well as for the sections of the chorus, is consistently intense and moving. The response to the imagery of Christ’s wounds and “stripes” is especially poignant. Fürwahr, er trug unsere Krankheit is a fine piece, full of sustained melodies and aching harmonies, and it comes off particularly well in this recording.

Alles, was ihr tut is perhaps the most familiar of these four cantatas. It is an exhortation to ensure that (in the words of the Epistle to the Colossians) “whatsoever ye do in word or deed, [ye] do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the father by him”, as well as a petition that God might assist both individual and community. Buxtehude fruitfully juxtaposes elements of the sacred concerto and the aria, as well as the setting of a chorale text to an already existing melody; homophonic passages and contrapuntal writing are employed by turns; the interplay of instruments and voices is always effective and interesting. In passing phrases – both textual and musical – between soloist and chorus, Buxtehude seems to offer an artistic statement as to the proper relationship between the individual and the community in a Christian society. The whole work breathes an untroubled faith and the continuo work from the Dufay Ensemble is particularly striking here.

The external evidence makes it unlikely that the Magnificat is Buxtehude’s; although one copy of the work was found in the collection of Buxtehude’s friend Gustav Düben, who certainly owned copies of works by Buxtehude, it has to be said that he also owned works by other composers too; other surviving copies of this setting come from areas of Europe where Buxtehude is not known to have had any connections. Nor, indeed, does it really sound like Buxtehude; it lacks the subtlety and inventiveness of Buxtehude at anything like his best. It is pleasant but undistinguished and is perhaps best attributed to that old favourite ‘Anon’.

These are not perfect performances. The closing ‘Hallelujah’ of Der Herr ist mit mir hasn’t quite the brilliance and lightness of touch that the music deserves; Johan Reuter’s bass, though tonally very apt and attractive, isn’t quite as expressive as one might wish; just now and then, by the highest standards, the voices of one or two of the choir’s soloists sound overtaxed. On the other hand, the Choir as a whole sings beautifully, their work tonally lovely, their diction exemplary. The performances are certainly plenty good enough to give the hearer a pretty good idea of just how fine this music is.

Glyn Pursglove

see also Review by Brian Wilson


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