Nicolaus Bruhns (1665 - 1697)
Cantatas and Organ Works - Volume 1
Jauchzet dem Herren alle Welt
Prelude in E minor ('great')
Mein Herz ist bereit
Paratum cor meum
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland
Der Herr hat seinen Stuhl im Himmel bereitet
Erstanden ist der heilige Christ
Yale Institute of Sacred Music/Masaaki Suzuki (organ)
rec. 2016/17 at Marquand Chapel, Yale University, New Haven, USA
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as a stereo 16/44 download with pdf booklet from eclassical.com
BIS BIS-2271 SACD 
Nicolaus Bruhns is one of the best-known representatives of the North German organ school. Being a contemporary of Dieterich Buxtehude, he belongs to the last generation of that illustrious school. His father was organist in Schwabstedt when Nicolaus was born. He learnt to play the organ as well as string instruments. In the latter department his teacher was his uncle Peter in Lübeck; there he also became the favourite pupil of Buxtehude. Bruhns developed into a virtuoso on the violin and on the organ. The German composer and theorist Johann Mattheson reported that Bruhns sometimes played both instruments at the same time: while playing the violin he realized the basso continuo part on the pedal of the organ. For some years he worked as a composer and violinist at the court in Copenhagen. In 1689 he was appointed organist of the Stadtkirche in Husum. It was stated that "never before (...) [had] the city heard his like in composition and performance on all manner of instruments". When the civic authorities in Kiel tried to make him move to their town, the Husum authority raised his salary. He remained there until his death.
Bruhns has become best-known for his organ music, although he has left only six organ works. The rest of his extant oeuvre comprises sacred concertos, mostly on a German text; only two have a text in Latin. It is especially regrettable that no chamber music from his pen has come down to us. Whether he has written any, is impossible to say. Some of his sacred concertos include virtuosic violin parts and it is generally assumed that he intended them for his own performance. Also notable is the fact that three of the twelve sacred works are for bass solo. It is possible that they were written for the bass Georg Ferber, who had been Kantor at Husum for 14 years before moving to nearby Schleswig two years before Bruhns arrived. He was known for having an excellent bass voice.
Bruhns's sacred works - sometimes called 'cantatas' - are written in the tradition of the German sacred concerto. This means that they are through-composed, without formal division into different sections, and that solo and tutti episodes are fully integrated. Some of them comprise several stanzas, and this can be interpreted as an indiction of what was to come in the next century. Almost all of them are settings of complete psalms (100: Jauchzet dem Herren alle Welt; 130: De profundis clamavi), or verses from psalms. Der Herr hat seinen Stuhl im Himmel bereitet is a setting of four verses from Psalm 103. Mein Herz ist bereit and Paratum cor meum have an identical text: the verses 8 to 12 from Psalm 57. The Lutheran chorale plays a minor role in Bruhns's sacred vocal oeuvre: Erstanden ist der heilige Christ is based on the first three stanzas of the chorale, but Bruhns doesn't make use of the melody on which it was sung.
Bruhns's cantatas are a mixture of Italian influences and German traditional counterpoint. De profundis clamavi is a fine example: it is scored for bass, two violins and basso continuo, and imitative counterpoint plays a prominent role in this piece. It is not only the violins which imitate each other, but they also imitate the solo voice. Obviously the tutti episodes are also dominated by counterpoint. It is especially the virtuosity of the vocal and instrumental solo parts which testifies to the Italian influence. Jauchzet dem Herren alle Welt is a sacred concerto for tenor, two violins and basso continuo. The tenor part is full of coloratura and long melismas. Mein Herz ist bereit is for bass, violin and basso continuo, and here the violin part is technically demanding, including double stopping and virtuosic figurations. This piece is comparable with, for instance, the concerto Nisi Dominus by Bruhns's contemporary Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber.
Bruhns's preludes show the features of the North German organ school. They are written in the stylus phantasticus which has its origins in the seconda pratica which emerged in the early decades of the 17th century in Italy. They consist of various sections of contrasting character, largely following the pattern of toccata - fugue - toccata - fugue - toccata. The toccata sections have a strong improvisatory character. The 'great' Prelude in E minor is Bruhns's most famous organ work and a brilliant specimen of the North German organ style. It should be taken into account that all the organ works from this period and this region find their origin in improvisation which was the main task of any organist. It explains that relatively few organ works have been preserved. What has come down to us is mostly what was written down by pupils or what an organist himself decided to put down for pedagogical purposes. Another notable aspect of Bruhns' organ works is the virtuosic treatment of the pedal part. The main organs in northern Germany had an independent pedal board with a rich variety of stops and a large compass. This way they were well suited to the accompaniment of congregational singing.
The chorale fantasia Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland is another typical specimen of the North German organ school. The various lines of the chorale are treated in different ways, and the chorale melody is heavily ornamented. Here Bruhns also makes use of the echo technique which points to the influence of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, the Amsterdam organist who was the teacher of many German organists and can be considered one of the founding fathers of the North German organ school.
This is the first disc of a complete recording of Bruhns's oeuvre. Masaaki Suzuki does not direct his own Bach Collegium Japan this time, but an American ensemble. Overall, the performances are very good. I did not know any of the singers: Dann Coakwell and James Taylor (tenor) and Paul Max Tipton (bass-baritone); they seem well versed in the German baroque style. They have no problems with the coloratura and their German pronunciation is very good. Tipton's voice is not quite my cup of tea, but that is mainly a matter of taste. There is a slight vibrato in his voice, which I find regrettable. In general I would have liked stronger dynamic accents in the singing and playing. Suzuki himself delivers excellent performances of the organ works. The improvisatory traits in the Prelude in E minor come off to full extent. Interestingly, the organ is a modern instrument, built in 2007 by Taylor & Boody Organ Builders, but in purely North German baroque style. The pitch is a'=465 - what is known as Chorton - and the temperament 1/4 syntonic comma meantone. These are essential elements to do justice to German 17th-century organ works.
This disc is a good start of an important project. I am looking forward to the next volume.
Johan van Veen
Previous review: Glyn Pursglove (May 2022 – Recording of the Month)
Published: October 26, 2022