Dieterich Buxtehude is first and foremost known as a composer of music for the organ. This si a reflection of the main thrust of his activities in Lübeck, where he was organist of the Marienkirche. He also composed vocal music; most of it was especially written for the so-called Abendmusiken which his predecessor, Franz Tunder, had founded. In northern Germany organists were at the centre of a town's musical life, and that was also the case with Buxtehude. It was probably for the town musicians that he wrote his chamber music. It is also quite possible that he himself may have played his sonatas with colleagues and friends, for instance from the neighbouring city of Hamburg. The fourth part of his oeuvre is made up of music for harpsichord. None of his compositions in this department were published during his lifetime. It is assumed that they were written for amateurs, and his suites and other harpsichord pieces were disseminated in manuscript.
The largest part of his harpsichord oeuvre comprises suites. The form of the suite is of French origin. It seems likely that Johann Jacob Froberger introduced the suite to Germany and would have had a hand in the structuring of the suite as we find it in Buxtehude's oeuvre: allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. Buxtehude seldom deviates from this structure. In a few suites he adds a second sarabande and there are also examples in which some of the dances are followed by a variation, called a double. This also bears witness to the French orientation of the suites.
In addition Buxtehude composed various sets of variations. This was a very popular form in the 17th and 18th centuries. Almost any melody could be used as starting point: sacred pieces, such as hymns, secular songs or a tune of a composer's own invention. More Palatino was a tune which was well-known across Europe, and was used, for instance, by Sweelinck for some variations. Buxtehude did the same, and composed twelve variations on this tune. The Aria in C (BuxWV 246) seems to be based on a melody of his own invention. The fact that Buxtehude was interested in and acquainted with contemporary French music comes to the fore in his use of an air from a ballet by Jean-Baptiste Lully for the Aria Rofilis which comprises three variations. In two sets of variations Buxtehude takes a dance as a starting point: a courant in Courante zimble in a minor and a sarabande in the Aria in a minor (BuxWV 249). Buxtehude's largest keyboard work is La Capricciosa, an aria with 32 variations some of which are quite demanding. One wonders whether this work also was written for amateurs.
The suites and the variations are obviously written for the harpsichord or other instruments, such as the clavichord. Buxtehude's oeuvre also includes various pieces which can be played either on the organ or the harpsichord. A famous example is the suite on Auf meinen lieben Gott, a sacred piece by Johann Hermann Schein, Thomaskantor in Leipzig from 1616 until his early death in 1630. This work is written for keyboard without a pedal part and therefore can be played on the harpsichord. It was not uncommon to play sacred music on the harpsichord: various chorale partitas by Georg Böhm and Johann Sebastian Bach have no pedal parts either. This suite is often played at the orga, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, the form of the suite and its character point in the direction of the harpsichord. This work is a hybrid of suite and variation - every movement is in fact a variation on the chorale melody.
Some of the pieces are suitable for both organ and harpsichord: the two canzonas, the Toccata in G and the Praeludium in g minor. It is not surprising that they are often played on the organ, probably even more frequently than on the harpsichord. The Italian style shines through in these works, more particularly the stylus phantasticus which was one of the features of the North German organ school. The prelude and the toccata comprise various sections of a contrasting character, including fugues. These four pieces are of a contrapuntal nature.
The Italian harpsichordist and organist Simone Stella plays just one instrument, a copy of a harpsichord by the Flemish keyboard builder Johannes Ruckers from 1638. I wonder whether a German instrument would have been a better option, or at least a good alternative. A greater tonal spectrum would have been on offer if a variety of instruments had been used. It would also have been a good idea to perform a part of this repertoire on the clavichord. This instrument was widespread in Germany. That said, there is every reason to welcome this set. Ton Koopman has also recorded Buxtehude's harpsichord works as part of his complete recording of Buxtehude's oeuvre. Not everyone will purchase the Koopman discs which are considerably more expensive. I haven't listened to all his recordings yet, and therefore can't compare the two. Koopman makes use of various harpsichords, which is definitely a bonus. However, you can hardly go wrong with Stella's performances which are very good. He uses the harpsichord well and explores its various stops, mostly in a convincing and stylistically appropriate manner. There were also times when I felt that he could have been a bit more sober in his ornamentation. The tempi are generally well chosen; although there is certainly no lack of virtuosity I never felt that the tempi were extreme. Stella's own liner-notes are concise but informative and to the point.
All in all, this is a fine set: high quality at budget price. What more do you want?
Johan van Veen
CD 1 [64:25]
Aria Rofilis in d minor (BuxWV 248) [2:12]
Suite in G (BuxWV 240) [7:22]
Suite in e minor (BuxWV 237) [10:55]
Courante in d minor (BuxWV Anh 6) [1:41]
Suite in d minor (BuxWV 234) [13:51]
Suite in D (BuxWV 232) [4:00]
Auf meinen lieben Gott in e minor (BuxWV 179) [4:47]
Suite in C (BuxWV 230) [7:42]
Suite in g minor (BuxWV 242) [7:11]
Canzona in C (BuxWV 166) [4:40]
CD 2 [72:27]
Aria More Palatino in C (BuxWV 247) [15:27]
Suite in g minor (BuxWV 241) [7:44]
Suite in C (BuxWV 228) [9:31]
Suite in a minor (BuxWV deest) [9:08]
Suite in A (BuxWV 243) [8:53]
Suite in d minor (BuxWV deest) (ed. E. Roger, 1710) [7:54]
Suite in C (BuxWV 229) [6:47]
Praeludium in g minor (BuxWV 163) [7:00]
CD 3 [72:37]
Aria in C (BuxWV 246) [14:30]
Suite in e minor (BuxWV 235) [11:18]
Aria in a minor (BuxWV 249) [5:21]
Suite in F (BuxWV 239) [6:46]
Suite in C (BuxWV 226) [10:26]
Canzona in d minor (BuxWV 168) [4:01]
Suite in a minor (BuxWV 244) [8:50]
Suite in C (BuxWV 231) [6:34]
Toccata in G (BuxWV 165) [3:44]
CD 4 [69:41]
Courante zimble in a minor (BuxWV 245) [8:14]
Suite in F (BuxWV 238) [7:35]
Suite in d minor (BuxWV 233) [9:39]
Suite in C (BuxWV 227) [8:53]
Suite in e minor (BuxWV 236) [8:57]
Aria La Capricciosa, Partite diverse sopra una aria d'Inventione in G (BuxWV 250) [26:20]