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Dietrich Buxtehude (1637 -1707)
Sacred Cantatas

Was frag’ ich nach der Welt, BuxWV 104 [7.57]
Jesu, meine Freud und Lust, BuxWV 59 [6.47]
Sicut Moses, BuxWV 97 [7.55]
Passacaglia, BuxWV 161 (arranged for strings by Kevin Mallon) [6.09]
Wenn ich, Herr Jesu, habe dich, BuxWV 107 [8.31]
In te, Domine, speravi, BuxWV 53 [2.11]
Jubilate Domino, BuxWV 64 [9.06]
Wie schmeckt es so lieblich und wohl, BuxWV108 [9.55]
Matthew White, counter-tenor; Katherine Hill, soprano; Paul Grindlay, bass
Arcadia Ensemble/Kevin Mallon
Recorded at Grace Church on the Hill, Toronto, Canada, 13-16 May 2002.
NAXOS 8.557041 [58.30]

This fine CD has the earliest work that I knew by Dietrich Buxtehude – the Passacaglia, although in a very different guise. I recall, probably about 1975, hearing Kenneth Dawkins play this work on the Connacher Organ in the now demolished St Andrew’s Church, Stepps. It seemed to me one of the most beautiful works I had ever heard. When he had left the organ loft I pulled the music out of the cupboard and tried it for myself; after a few brave attempts I abandoned it. I must confess that I never did master it, although I have heard it played many times since – both on disc and at recitals or as voluntaries. Perhaps I should dig out the music and give it another try?

This same Passacaglia is given on this recording in a version for strings arranged by the present conductor Kevin Mallon. It was the first track I played for this review and it impressed me greatly. The rest of the CD has not spoilt this impression; however the Passacaglia remains one of the loveliest works in the Buxtehude canon.

Yet Buxtehude is often remembered solely as an adjunct to Johann Sebastian Bach. He is seen simply as one of a number of influences that were to make up the Bach synthesis. The story of the young Sebastian’s visit to Lubeck to hear the older master play is widely known. It is well captured in the Mancunian poet Sheila Wild’s words,
Bach takes leave of absence to visit Buxtehude (extract)

In distant Lübeck’s Marienkirche
the evening congregation
crowds around the organist.
Dietrich Buxtehude leans slowly
forward, turning his hands over
to empty them of silence.
The opening notes begin
in darkness, then invisibly
the sound moves on,
a widening river that drags
the listener northward to
a white unbroken stretch of sand.
Astonished, Johann Sebastian
listens and shakes his head.
He outstays his leave
by many weeks
and back in Arnstadt
Maria Barbara grows worried
the Bishop may suppose
him indolent, or worse.
Sleepless, he sits up at night,
tracing in the attic space
above his bed a toccata
and fugue in D. Outside,
the town hall square
and the full moon are
in absolute repose.
Tonight he will compose.
Tomorrow he will begin
the long walk home to Arnstadt
and the Council’s wrath.

Sheila Wild © 2004

We all know that J.S.Bach went on to a great career. Yet it is only comparatively recently that Buxtehude has been regarded in his own right. Furthermore, he has been considered as a keyboard writer, with his music for organ being best known. However he composed in excess of 300 works for a variety of media. Many of them have been recorded, although often we have only one version to choose from. Over a third of his opus list are cantatas written for St Mary’s in Lübeck. These are composed for a great variety of musical forces – from one solo voice with continuo to nine part choral works with orchestral accompaniment.

I think it is safe to say that there is a certain simplicity in these cantatas that contrasts with some of Bach’s more elaborate creations. In fact there is often an operatic feel to these works rather than ecclesiastical. Just listen to the attractive opening duet in Was Frag ‘ich nach der Welt’. This is charming music that definitely has a secular feel to it. There is a wonderful interplay here between the soloists and the instrumentalists. Buxtehude allows the players to have their moments of interest before inviting the soloist back onto centre-stage. The opening of Wie schmeckt es so lieblich und wohl has spaciousness about it that listeners to Buxtehude’s chamber music will recognize. Once again the pious prose is accompanied with music more suited to the opera house than to the chancel.

Some of loveliest works on this CD are the solo cantatas. Jubilate Domino is truly intimate in its presentation of what should be quite an extrovert theme – ‘Sing for joy to the Lord, all the earth. Praise him with songs and exultation.’ The opening instrumental passage is actually quite reflective. It is only when the counter-tenor enters that the mood of the words is established. Yet even here it is quite a restrained reflection on the text.

Yet perhaps my favorite cantata is In te domine speravi. This was written for a trio with a very light continuo. This work is two minutes and eleven seconds of sheer delight.

Wenn ich, Herr Jesu, habe dich, is perhaps the most intense of these works. At least the style of writing is much more serious in its realisation. The sentiment of the text is the idea of salvation through suffering with, and in, Jesus Christ. There is not a note too many or a chord out of place in this exquisite work. It is a masterpiece.

Sicut Moses is another work that explores Buxtehude’s skill at writing ‘expansive’ music for strings. It opens slowly and reflectively but builds up into a joyful work in the concluding ‘amens’ The soprano soloist makes this a particularly fine work. It achieves an effective balance between arias, recitative and instrumental interludes that never bores.

Jesu, meine Freud und Lust, is a delicious work for countertenor solo and strings. The composer has divided his string section into five parts resulting in a subtle but very interesting and rich accompaniment. Soon the counter-tenor enters to deliver his message of ‘Jesus my joy and strength.’ In many ways it is a love poem to Jesus. ‘Jesu, sweetest river of nectar, most beloved kiss of love, my hope and portion…’ Perhaps rather heady for our secular age, but extremely popular at a time when theologians were insisting on an emotional connection with God and His Son; it was not an era of congregational cerebralism, but of wearing the heart on the sleeve. It is not for nothing that Italian songs held a particular fascination at this time and that Buxtehude did not mind making use of their particular style.

This is a great CD. I confess to having seen Buxtehude very much as an organ composer, but this disc has opened my eyes to a different theme. There is no doubt in my mind that some of these cantatas are minor masterpieces.

The sound quality is excellent. The soloists are particularly wonderful and the Arcadia Ensemble’s playing deserves special mention.

Two criticisms. Firstly, I think that 58 minutes is a bit short for a CD. Surely Naxos could have found another couple of cantatas to make it up to about 70 minutes? And secondly, I do not know this material and would have enjoyed more detailed programme notes and information as to when each work was composed.

But I would be churlish if I let these to slightly negative points draw attention away from what is a truly wonderful, delicious, beautiful and quite moving production from Naxos.

John France

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