Though the tercentenary year is now over, recordings of Buxtehude
are still appearing. Suddenly Buxtehude’s organ music has become
a crowded and hotly competed area. What a surprise it is to be
spoiled for choice – and I, for one, am not complaining.
Buxtehude was a prolific composer but the great
variety which they contain makes his organ works well worth
hearing: indeed, these recent recordings serve to remind us
that he is not at all eclipsed by Bach. Yet there is a strong
sense of unity in all Buxtehude’s variety, a mark of the strong
guiding spirit behind it all.
The music on this new Claves set is played by Kei
Koito, a Japanese former student of the eminent Baroque organ
scholar Harald Vogel. When she moved to Geneva she suddenly
found the historic North German organs that she had dreamed
about within travelling distance. She speaks in the booklet
of her thirst and passion for the music of Buxtehude and his
contemporaries, enthusiasm which would have been evident from
her playing even if I had not read the notes – by which I don’t
mean to imply that her performances are undisciplined. The enthusiasm
has clearly been filtered through academic study and understanding:
I think this is the first time I have seen such a detailed and
scholarly bibliography in a CD booklet.
In the sense that this is a unique document – a
distinguished Japanese academic and performer seizing the opportunity
to play the organs of her dreams – it is thoroughly recommendable
in its own right, without recourse to comparison. Nevertheless,
some comparisons with recent issues are inevitable.
I have recently reviewed Volumes 6 and 7 of the
ongoing Naxos series of Buxtehude’s organ music and the sixth
and final volume of the dacapo series. As several of the pieces
on this Claves 3-CD set overlap with one or more of those recitals,
some comparisons are in order. I would have liked to compare
Koito’s performances especially with Bryndorf’s final volume
on dacapo – their approaches are similar and, like Koito, she
performs on a contemporary organ – but the overlap between these
two is quite small. By an odd coincidence, Koito was recording
at Tangermünde on the very same dates in June, 2007, when Bryndorf
was completing her cycle at Lübeck.
Bryndorf, on the organ of St Jakobi, Lübeck, offers
four verses of Nimm von uns Herr, Koito only the third
verse on the St Jacobi, Hamburg, organ. Both give suitably reflective
performances of this work. Bryndorf gives us the complete Funeral
Music for Buxtehude’s father, Koito only a good performance
of the Klaglied from that sequence, Muss der Tod denn
entbinden, on the Roskilde organ.
Strictly speaking, Koito’s performances on historic
organs should not be comparable with Julia Brown’s on the Naxos
CDs, except that Brown’s Pasi organ is in some ways more ‘authentic’
than the real things – it was built to be an organ for all seasons,
capable of playing early music in meantone, as well as more
recent music in equal temperament.
The Præludium in g, BuxWV150 appears on
Volume 6 of the Naxos series. Koito’s interpretation is a good
deal brisker at 6:51 than Brown’s, which takes 8:35. In the
Magnificat primi toni, BuxWV204, and the Præludium
in F, BuxWV145, Koito is also slightly faster than Brown.
The picture is much the same with the one work
which overlaps with Volume 7 of the Naxos. The Canzona in
g, BuxWV173 takes 2:31 on Naxos, 1:40 on Claves. Brown is
also slower than Bryndorf in the one piece where their recitals
overlap. Does that mean that Brown is too slow or Bryndorf and
Koito too fast?
Well, neither, actually. Timings tell only part
of the story; they are useful in making us ask questions about
two different performances of the same piece, but the answers
to those questions can be surprising. Looking back over my rough
notes on all these pieces on the Naxos discs, I have not found
one indication that I thought Julia Brown’s performances unduly
slow. Comparing her playing with that of Bryndorf, I wrote:
Where Bryndorf emphasises the dance-like elements
in the music, Brown is more meditative and reminds us more of
Bach’s debt to Buxtehude. This should not be taken to mean that
Bryndorf skates over the music oblivious to its deeper qualities
or that Brown is slow and stodgy: both are thoroughly convincing
in their own terms. Neither player seems to feel that Buxtehude’s
famous Stylus Phantasticus ... means pulling the music
about to make it artificially ‘exciting’.
Substitute ‘Koito’ for ‘Bryndorf’ and you get the
Two of the works which Koito plays, the Præludium
in C Major, BuxWV 137 and the Præludium in G Minor,
BuxWV 148, also figure on Christopher Herrick’s Organ Fireworks
XII which I recently recommended (Hyperion CDA67612 – see
Koito gives a fine account of BuxWV137 on the organ of St Jacobi,
Hamburg, and an equally fine account of BuxWV148 on the organ
of the Martinikerk, Groningen, both of which would appear to
have greater claims to be historically more appropriate to the
music of Buxtehude. Herrick’s Haderslev organ is of no great
antiquity, having been built originally in 1863 by Furtwängler
& Sons, rebuilt in 1932 by Marcussen & Søn, and updated
Yet, when one takes into account the various rebuilds and restorations
that Koito’s two ‘historic’ organs have received, they are not
particularly better suited to Buxtehude than Herrick’s Danish
organ. Both the Hamburg and Groningen organs have emerged from
rebuilds at rather too high a pitch for baroque music. Good
as the Koito performances are, Herrick’s are just that little
bit more special; she is light-fingered, he lighter still. His
registration is also a touch lighter and his slightly faster
tempo benefits the music. Where the ‘fireworks’ may be said
to explode, at the end of BuxWV137 and at the close of the fugue
of BuxWV148, both organists give it their all.
Each of the three CDs in the Claves set offers
a well balanced programme. The Præludium in C, BuxWV137
makes a good opening to the first disc, a piece which speaks
with authority and is played with authority, though Koito is
light and nimble enough where appropriate. Nimm von uns
is more reflective and receives a performance to match, while
Wir danken dir, a short virtuoso piece with some glorious
pedal-work is also well brought off. The lighter registration
at the opening of Danket dem Herrn offers a striking
contrast with the preceding track. In all three pieces the chorale
tunes are clearly audible; the original hearers would have had
no trouble in identifying them if they heard them in performances
as good as Koito’s.
These first four tracks are played on the Hamburg
organ, dating from 1605-7, with modifications, of which those
by Arp Schnitger (1689-93) are the most important before its
restoration by Jürgen Ahrend (1981-93). At a=495.45Hz its tuning
is much higher than baroque pitch, but I did not find this as
troublesome as string players and others with absolute pitch
Full specifications of this and all the organs
are given, including their tuning and pitch. To have had the
registration for each piece would have been welcome but would
have made the booklet too bulky.
The Groningen organ (track 5 onwards) is also higher
than baroque pitch at a=466Hz. Some of its pipework dates from
the 16th century and earlier. Again it was rebuilt
by Arp Schnitger and restored by Jürgen Ahrend (1983-4). It
has a bright sound, especially suited to the delicate playing
in In dulci jubilo and Komm, heiliger Geist, but
with some more powerful 16’ and 32’ stops, providing a powerful
contrast in the Præludium in g which aptly rounds off
the first CD.
The Passacaglia in d and the three Præludia,
BuxWV148-150 which form the backbone of this second section
are weightier pieces. These so-called free-form pieces point
the way to Bach and Koito’s playing brings out their weightiness,
though she is never too heavy or over-emphatic in the pre-echoes
of Bach. These are ‘big’ works in performances to match, but
never overdone – for example, the opening fugues of BuxWV148
and 150 are suitably measured but never dull, with light, dancing
textures where appropriate later.
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland breathes the spirit of
Advent expectancy; Koito’s apt performance offers a real contrast
with Nun lob, mein Seel which follows, exultation set
against a down-to-earth bass in her playing, without destroying
the unity of the piece.
In Koito’s hands the Canzona in g and the
Sarabande, short pieces of real delicacy like sugar confections,
dance, dazzle and are gone.
CD2 includes a set of variations on Jesus Christus
unser Heiland by Buxtehude’s contemporary Martin Radeck,
a composer previously unknown to me and to the Oxford Companion
to Music. This adds to the variety but I am not sure why
just one piece by him was included; it is attractive enough,
if a little academic, and well performed here.
This second CD opens with Koito’s own attractive
arrangement of part of the instrumental Sonata, BuxWV255,
which receives a suitably light-hearted performance on the Payerne
organ. After a good performance of Erhalt uns, Herr,
equally well suited to this instrument, we move to the organ
of Roskilde Cathedral, an attractive instrument which has featured
on some of McCreesh’s liturgical reconstructions and, at a=432Hz,
is closest to baroque pitch of all those on these CDs. Koito’s
description of this instrument as “exhibit[ing] rich sonorous
resources” is well borne out by her own performances, notably
of the two Præludia which begin and end this section.
For the Radeck and the remaining pieces by Buxtehude
we return to the Hamburg organ. The lively and full-bodied performance
of the variations on sections of the Te Deum, BuxWV218,
makes an appropriate conclusion to this CD.
The third CD offers a number of takes on aspects
of the Magnificat and its German equivalent employed
in Lutheran Vespers, the Latin only on major feast days such
as Christmas. (Bach’s version exists with added verses for Christmas
Day.) I suspect that this third CD will be mainly of academic
interest in introducing us to predecessors and contemporaries
of Buxtehude who are little known, even to specialists, though
the music is attractive enough.
If the work here attributed to Tunder is really
his, he deserves to be better known than as the predecessor
and father-in-law of Buxtehude. Hieronymus Prætorius III and
Jakob Prætorius are not to be confused with the better-known
Heinrich Prætorius (probably no relation). Nor is the child-genius
Hieronymus III, who died at the age of 15, to be confused with
his famous grandfather of the same name. The name seems to have
been common among North-German organists (see the Oxford
Companion to Music and Concise
Grove for Jacob); in some cases, at least, it was an assumed
name. Heinrich Prætorius’s real family name was Schultz or Schultheiss,
but a Latin or Italian name sounded better.
This third CD opens with performances on the Tangermünde
organ, the work of Hans Scherer the Younger (1623-4) and restored
in 1994. At a=486Hz it is again higher than baroque pitch but
its tuning according to a system developed by Jacob Prætorius
(1619) makes it an appropriate vehicle for his music.
For most listeners the highlight of this final
disc will be the performance of the two Bach pieces, the Schübler
Prelude Meine Seele erhebt den Herren and the Fuga
sopra il Magnificat – fine performances, on the Hamburg
organ, as we began, which set the seal on a recommendable album.
Just as I was completing this review, I received an EMI Triple
of Bach Organ Works performed by Werner Jacob (5 09393 2, 3
CDs) containing a performance of the same Schübler Prelude,
BWV248 on the Hildebrandt organ of the Wenzelskirche in Naumburg.
Jacob and Koito each take 2:34 over this piece and both performances
are sympathetic, but Koito’s is the more magical, mainly because
her registration is simpler and understated – here less really
does mean more.
The Claves recording is good, wide-ranging, with
a good sense of spatial placement and with just enough ambience
to give a sense of place without the sound ever becoming muddy.
The actions of the organs are almost inaudible.
The booklet contains detailed and informative notes,
with an idiomatic English translation. The cover is rather dull
– it would have been more attractive to prospective buyers looking
through a browser if it had offered a depiction of one of the
organ photographs inside the gatefold.
Another attractive product of the Buxtehude tercentenary;
well worth considering if you haven’t begun to collect any of
the complete sets.