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CD: Crotchet
Download: Classicsonline

Dieterich BUXTEHUDE (1637-1707)
Opera Omnia X - Organ Works 5
CD 1
Praeludium in E, BuxWV 142 [6:55]
Nun bitten wir den heiligen Geist, BuxWV 209 [2:22]
Te Deum laudamus, BuxWV 218 [11:46]
Praeludium in C, BuxWV 136 [5:22]
Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit, BuxWV 222 [2:14]
Toccata in D, BuxWV 155 [6:42]
Von Gott will nicht lassen BuxWV 221 [2:15]
Praeludium in A, BuxWV 151 [4:30]
Praeludium in A, BuxWV 152 [3:34]
Herr Christ, der einig Gottes Sohn, BuxWV 191 [2:52]
Praeambulum in A, BuxWV 158 [4:18]
Magnificat Primi Toni, BuxWV 204 [3:04]
Magnificat Noni Toni, BuxWV 205 [2:41]
Praeludium in G, BuxWV 150 [6:55]
CD 2
Praeludium in A, BuxWV 153 [5:05]
Ich dank dir, lieber Herre, BuxWV 194 [4:44]
Herr Christ, der einig Gottes Sohn, BuxWV 192 [2:24]
Praeludium in E, BuxWV 143 [4:40]
Mensch, willt du leben seliglich, BuxWV 206 [1:40]
Nun bitten wir den heiligen Geist, BuxWV 208 [2:00]
Nicolaus BRUHNS (1665-1697)
Praeludium in E (The Larger) [7:33]
Praeludium in E (The Smaller) [4:40]
Nun komm der Heiden Heiland [9:01]
Praeludium in G [6:47]
Ton Koopman (organ)
rec. April, 2008, St Wilhadi, Stade, Germany. DDD
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72249 [65:37 + 48:40]
Experience Classicsonline

We are approaching the half way point of Ton Koopman's acclaimed and highly satisfying series of probably about two dozen CD sets containing all the extant music by the giant of North German music before Bach, Dieterich Buxtehude.

Buxtehude was born about 50 years before Bach, in 1637; he died at the age of 70, having spent the last almost 40 years of his life at the Marienkirche in Lübeck, where he succeeded Franz Tunder and married Tunder's daughter… something of a tradition for Lübeck organists. It was in Lübeck that Bach famously heard Buxtehude play in 1705, having walked almost 250 miles and absenting himself from his post at Arnstadt to do so.

But even were it not for the immense influence which Buxtehude exercised on composers of his own and future generations, we should have to listen with care and wonder to the beauty, profundity and variety of his compositional genius as here exposed by keyboard specialist and conductor, Ton Koopman, who is 65 this year. Even Koopman seems a little surprised at the quality and significance of the corpus of Buxtehude's keyboard works, the conclusion of whose performance this excellent Challenge release (Opera Omnia X, Organ works 5) represents. 'Astounding quality' is how Koopman describes it. And indeed it is.

Because there is no Urtext, no autographs even, because there is subdued but very real confusion about the provenances of some manuscripts, because those that are extant are inconsistently preserved and edited, and because editorial and presentational styles have changed during the century and half over which existing sources survive, the advantages of having a single performer are legion. And when that performer is such a sympathetic, engaged, enthusiastic and energetic specialist as Ton Koopman, we could hardly wish for better.

As much is evident from the first note on this double CD. Koopman's playing is full of vigour, elegance, clarity - and a diligent sparkle. One is conscious of always listening to the music that Buxtehude wrote, not Koopman's interpretation of it. Yet at the same time the tempi and phrasing convey the impression that one is in very good hands from our own century: this is necessarily a modern account. Of course Buxtehude himself was such an accomplished organist that such a response on Koopman's part over 400 years later is not inappropriate. Buxtehude would surely have appreciated Koopman's interpretative skills and applauded the extent to which his playing exhibits his own spirit and enthusiasm.

Further, we know that Buxtehude's adherence to the stylus phantasticus implies a good deal of (interpretative) freedom for all performers of his work who have their hearts in it. So Koopman's approach is a fitting one. The stylus phantasticus originated in organ pieces (particularly toccatas and fantasias), as developed by Merulo and Frescobaldi in Italy and the latter's German student, Froberger. Rather like a classical fantasia, the stylus phantasticus is based on an the improvisatory employment of brief and contrasting motifs in free form. So the performer is paramount - as are his/her sensitivity to the possibilities suggested by the composer's imagination.

Of almost equal importance is the instrument: the seventeenth century was the organ's century par excellence. In the case of the North German exponents, the large, complex, powerful, the majestic Hanseatic organ was in many ways required for the voluminous sound implied by the compositions of Buxtehude and others.

Add to this the fact that composers such as Bach and Buxtehude were almost as comfortable overseeing the building and maintenance of such instruments as they were playing and writing for them, and the relationship becomes a special one: geographical area determines the nature of the music because it determines the nature of the instrument. Again, it needs a musician with experience of such a relationship to reveal the depths of the composer's thoughts. Koopman has such experience, though wears it lightly.

As the series progresses, once senses that Koopman is getting more and more from it himself! To be sure, the way in which he conveys to us the integration of North European organ styles with those of the Italian (and even French) traditions is striking. But Koopman's is also a very spontaneous way of doing this - with an obvious delight on his part in the at times almost playful expansiveness of Buxtehude's writing.

The CDs consist of music categorisable as both free and as chorale-based. There are nine multi-section pedaliter preludes in the stylus phantasticus, which need larger organs. BuxWV 142 [CD.1 tr.1], 143 [CD.2 tr.4], 150 [CD.1 tr.14] and 155 [CD.1 tr.6] are all unusually substantial pieces with a thematic unity and melodic experimentation that we haven't seen on the other CDs in this series. We don't know the order of these compositions of Buxtehude's - but it's tempting to think they come later because more mature.

The chorales fall into three categories: compact polyphonic settings such as BuxWV 191 [CD.1 tr.10], 192 [CD.1 tr.3], 206 [CD.2 tr.5], 208 [CD.2 tr.6], 209 [CD.1 tr.2] and 222 [CD.1 tr.5]; elaborate, adventurous and highly expressive fantasias: BuxWV 194 [CD.2. tr.2] and 221 [CD.1 tr.7]; and Latin liturgical melodies: BuxWV 204 [CD.1 tr.12], 205 [CD.1 tr.13] and 218 [CD.1 tr.3]. With the exception of the Bruhns pieces (see below), Koopman has interleaved the various types of composition over the CDs' 20 tracks, rather than grouped them by type. This means we are repeatedly challenged to vary our response.

Koopman plays the Bielfeldt organ of 1736 in St Wilhadi, Stade, in Germany: it's a splendid instrument which combines both gentleness, mellowness and modesty with a brilliant penetration and command of its immediate environment. Very well recorded on these CDs, the degree of resonance, proximity and atmosphere are perfect and well suited to Koopman's honest yet inspired style.

The booklet is up to Challenge's usual standards in terms of information, biography, background (Christoph Wolff provides the commentary on the works) and historical analysis - although the headings for the German portion are misprinted as from Opera Omnia IX etc.

Nicholas Bruhns (1665-1697) was arguably Buxtehude's most gifted pupil; he too is known from CPE Bach's obituary of his father to have influenced Johann Sebastian Bach. At the end of the second CD we get Bruhns' entire known output for organ - three preludes and a chorale. Different, though pleasingly rousing and inventive - and a nice addition.

If you have (any of) the other nine CD sets in Challenge's Koopman Buxtehude series, you'll want to add this without a second's hesitation. If you haven't yet fallen under Koopman's joyous and transparent spell, this is not only a good place to start, but one likely to urge immediate investigation of the other volumes - so compelling, durable and full of insight and deftly winnowed enthusiasm is his playing.

Mark Sealey

Reviews of other releases in this series
CC72241 Vocal works vol. 1
CC72244 Vocal works vol. 2
CC72245 Harpsichord works vol. 2


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