musica Dei donum
Dieterich BUXTEHUDE (1637 - 1707): "Abendmusiken"
Vox Luminis (Lionel Meunier); Ensemble Masques (Olivier Fortin)
rec: Jan 2017, Antwerp, AMUZ
Alpha - 287 (© 2017) (85'17")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet
Befiehl dem Engel, dass er komm (BuxWV 10);
Gott hilf mir (BuxWV 34);
Herzlich lieb hab ich dich, o Herr (BuxWV 41);
Jesu, meine Freude (BuxWV 60);
Jesu, meines Lebens Leben (BuxWV 62);
Sonata in D (BuxWV 267);
Sonata in a minor (BuxWV 272);
Sonata in B flat, op. 1,4 (BuxWV 255) 
 VII suonate, op. 1, 1694?
[VL] Sara Jäggi, Zsuzsi Tóth, Stefanie True, Caroline Weynants, soprano;
Daniel Elgersma, Jan Kullmann, alto;
Robert Buckland, Philippe Froeliger, tenor;
Sebastian Myrus, Lionel Meunier, bass
[EM] Julien Martin, recorder;
Sophie Gent, Tuomo Suni, violin;
Kathleen Kajioka, viola;
Mélisande Corriveau, viola da gamba;
Benoît Vanden Bemden, violone;
Olivier Fortin, harpsichord, organ
The commemoration of the death of Dieterich Buxtehude in 2007 has had a strong impact on modern performance practice. Before, his organ works were frequently played as was some of his chamber music. However, as far as his vocal works are concerned, only a small number of cantatas and especially the cycle of Passion cantatas, Membra Jesu nostri, were part of the standard repertoire. That has fundamentally changed. Not only did Ton Koopman record his entire vocal oeuvre, but other ensembles have also turned to that part of his output, as it has been recognized as being of excellent quality. And as most of the vocal works are for a relatively small ensemble and the solo episodes included in them are not very virtuosic, they are an attractive proposition for vocal ensembles which focus on early music.
Looking at the discs which have been released in recent years, it is probably fair to say that a kind of canon has come into existence. Just as some of Johann Sebastian Bach's cantatas are performed and recorded over and over again, whereas many others receive little attention, in Buxtehude's vocal oeuvre some pieces have gained much popularity among performers. The disc under review here is no exception. In particular Jesu, meine Freude, Herzlich lieb hab ich dich o Herr and Jesu meines Lebens Leben are available in quite a number of recordings. From that angle the programming of this disc could have been a little more adventurous. There are little-known pieces in Buxtehude's oeuvre which are just as good, but are seldom performed.
The cantata oeuvre by Buxtehude is divided into several categories. The programme opens with one of four cantatas which are called "mixed cantatas", as they include several forms: concerto, aria and chorale. Gott hilf mir starts with a sonata for two violins, two violas, violone and basso continuo. This is followed by a section for bass solo, accompanied by strings playing tremolo. The words are from Psalm 69: "Save me, O God, for the waters are come in, even unto my soul". The tutti then answer: "Fear not! When thou passest through the waters, I will be with you". An aria-like solo for bass follows: "Let Israel trust in the Lord". The tutti enter, with the violins playing the chorale melody Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt (not Vater unser im Himmelreich, as Peter Wollny states in his liner-notes). A strophic aria for three voices (SSB) follows, and the cantata closes with a tutti section: "Let Israel trust in the Lord". The bass solos are sung by Sebastian Myrus; in particular the opening solo is a bit disappointing as it lacks weight and is short on expression.
The next three cantatas all belong to the category of the chorale cantata; however, the chorales are treated in different ways. Befiehl dem Engel, daß er komm is a setting of the last two stanzas from the hymn Christe, der du bist der helle Tag, originally written as an evening hymn for children by Erasmus Alber (1550-1553): "Command the angel to come and watch over us, thy people". The chorale melody, which is abundantly ornamented, is interrupted by the instruments, which get involved in a dialogue with the voices. The quiet rhythm and slow tempo of the second section illustrate the text: "Thus shall we fall asleep in thy name, when the angels are with us". In this piece the perfect blending of the voices and the excellent balance between the vocal and the instrumental ensemble is particularly important.
Jesu, meine Freude was one of the most beloved hymns in Protestant Germany, which is reflected by the many arrangements made during the 17th and 18th centuries, among them Bach's famous motet. Like the latter Buxtehude has set all the stanzas. The cantata opens with a sinfonia. The verses 1, 4 and 6 are set in concertato manner for voices and instruments: verse 1 is for two sopranos and bass - here every solo voice is joined by a ripienist - whereas the two other verses are for a solo voice, bass and soprano respectively. Verses 2 and 5 are for soprano and basso continuo. Here the chorale melody is treated very freely; in verse 5 it is almost unrecognizable. The last verse is then again for three voices, performed here in the same line-up as the first, which lends this piece a sense of symmetry.
Another well-known hymn is Herzlich lieb hab ich dich o Herr (Martin Schalling, 1569), and especially the last stanza has become famous because Bach used it to close his St John Passion: "Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein". Buxtehude set all three stanzas, but treats the melody in different ways. The first stanza has the form, known as 'chorale sinfonia': the soprano (here more than one voice, probably all four sopranos of the ensemble) sings the chorale melody in its original form, without any ornamentation. The next two stanzas are in concerto form: the five voices (SSATB) treat the melody with considerable freedom, in the interest of text expression. Listen, for instance, to "Defend me from Satan's murder and lies", followed by "In all of my crosses support me", which builds a strong contrast to the previous lines. The polyphony is interrupted by homophonic tutti episodes. In the opening lines of the last stanza - "Ah, Lord, let thy dear angel, when my last hour comes, bear my soul to Abraham's bosom" - the voices are accompanied by strings playing tremolo. The word "rest" (let my body ... gently rest) is set to long note values.
Jesu, meines Lebens Leben is one of six cantatas in Buxtehude's oeuvre which are based on a ciaccona. The form of this cantata is that of a concerto: the voices dialogue with the instruments - two violins, two violas, violone and basso continuo. The latter open the piece with a sinfonia, and then follow five stanzas from the hymn, whose text is from the pen of Ernst Christoph Homburg (1659). The vocal scoring varies from solo voice (1: soprano; 3: tenor) to three (2: ATB; 4: SAB) or four voices (5).
Included in the programme are three sonatas. The Sonata in B flat is taken from the set of seven sonatas Op. 1, printed in Hamburg, probably in 1694. It is for violin, viola da gamba and basso continuo, a very common scoring in 17th-century Germany. It is in three sections, based on a basso ostinato; the last section incorporates a fugue. The other two sonatas have been preserved in manuscript; the Sonata in a minor is part of the Düben-collection, preserved in Uppsala. It consists of two sections over a basso ostinato, separated by a short adagio. The violin part includes some double stopping. The Sonata in D is notable for its unusual scoring: viola da gamba, violone and basso continuo. It is divided into five sections; two are a fugue in different versions. The role of the violone, largely independent from the basso continuo, is uncommon for the time.
This is a very attractive disc, despite some shortcomings, such as in Gott hilf mir. The addition of ripienists here and there also raises some questions, but unfortunately we know very little about the number of singers Buxtehude may have used. In most cases we even don't know for which occasion he wrote his cantatas and where they may have been performed. The singing of Vox Luminis is generally of the high standard we have come to expect. The Ensemble Masques plays well, but I would have liked stronger dynamic contrasts, and especially a more marked difference between good and bad notes. I also don't see any reason to add a recorder to the strings in Jesu, meines Lebens Leben.
The programme largely consists of better-known pieces from Buxtehude's oeuvre and lovers of baroque vocal music may have one or several recordings of them in their collection. Even so, considering the quality of the performances they should not hesitate to add this disc to it.
Johan van Veen (© 2018)