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Dietrich BUXTEHUDE (c1637 - 1707): "Das jüngste Gericht", oratorio in 3 acts (BuxWV Anh 3) (excerpts)

Ulrike Hofbauer, Monika Mauch, Margret Hunter, soprano; Henning Voss, alto; Hans Jörg Mammel, tenor; Jörg Jacobi, Harry van der Kamp, Olaf Tetampel, bass
Weser-Renaissance Bremen
Dir: Manfred Cordes

rec: November 18 - 21, 2005, Bassum, Stiftskirche
CPO - 777 197-2 (© 2007) (78'09")

Veronika Skuplik, Irina Kisselova, violin; Hille Perl, Frauke Hess, Juliane Laake, viola da gamba; Christian Beuse, dulcian; Lennart Spies, violone; Stephen Stubbs, Thomas Ihlenfeldt, chitarrone; Margit Schultheiß, harp; Detlef Bratschke, harpsichord; Klaus Eichhorn, organ

When Buxtehude took over the post of organist at the Marienkirche in Lübeck he inherited the practice of performing public concerts in the weeks before Christmas, the so-called Abendmusiken, which had been started by his predecessor, Franz Tunder. During these concerts a large variety of vocal and instrumental music was performed, including large-scale vocal works which Buxtehude specifically composed for these occasions. On the title page of one of his oratorios, Himmlische Seelenlust (now lost), Buxtehude described it as "in the opera style with many arias and ritornelli". How close these oratorios were to the style of the contemporary opera also becomes clear from a remark by the Hamburg clergyman Hinrich Elmerhorst, who defended his writing of libretti for the opera house in that city by referring to Buxtehude: "I can't fail to mention here how the world-famous Lübeck musician and organist, Diedericus Buxtehude, has performed more than one such opera for the customary Abendmusik, which takes place at a certain time of the year in public churches there".

Just one of Buxtehude's oratorios has been preserved: Wacht! Euch zum Streit gefasset macht, which is part of the so-called Düben-Sammlung, a large collection of German music, put together by Gustav Düben, and now in the library of Uppsala University. Gustav Düben was Kapellmeister in Stockholm and a friend and admirer of Buxtehude, which makes it understandable that this collection contains a large number of his compositions. The manuscript of this oratorio is anonymous, and for a long time Buxtehude's authorship has been under debate. But there is almost unanimous agreement that it is indeed a composition by Buxtehude. "Its length and subject ... relate it closely to the evening concerts, while stylistic traits point to Buxtehude's authorship", Manfred Cordes writes in the booklet.

The oratorio consists of three acts. In Act 1 three allegorical characters appear: 'Geitz' (avarice), 'Leichtfertigkeit' (levity) and 'Hoffarth' (pride). The Voice of God ('Die Stimm Gottes') tries to warn the vices and get them on the straight and narrow. In Act 2 the characters have become nameless, but there is still a clear difference between the godless and the pious: the former lead a gay life, whereas the latter try to be devout. Act 3 shows the people who are awaiting the Last Judgement. The pious are eagerly looking forward to eternal life, the godless are in great despair. Buxtehude has put together this oratorio with texts from the Bible, chorales and free poetry.

The oratorio is generally known under the title Das jüngste Gericht. This was an invention of its first editor, Willi Maxton, who severely cut and re-ordered the oratorio, which resulted in destroying its architecture. Instead of encouraging performances it made them rather less attractive since as a result of the editing the variety of this oratorio was largely wiped away. The scoring is in 10 parts: 2 sopranos, alto, tenor, bass, 2 violins, 2 violettas and bc. But the score itself requires additional singers and players. There are three soprano roles, and the third act contains a short piece for three basses. The sources also indicate trombones ad libitum.

There are too few facts as to prove that Buxtehude has performed his oratorio in this or that way. It is an established fact, though, that he sometimes used a large number of singers and players in his Abendmusiken. Sometimes even new wind instruments were bought for the performances. Buxtehude's colleague, the Kantor Pagendarm, considered it necessary to use them for performances in large spaces like the Marienkirche: "Well-made music cannot be presented in large churches without wind instruments any more than on an organ without any strong stops". But Manfred Cordes only uses strings, with an additional bassoon in the basso continuo.

Another matter is the number of singers involved. As written before the oratorio seems to require more singers than the scoring suggests. Either some participants were singing more than one role or playing more than one instrument - which was quite common in the circles of the Stadtpfeifer, which played an important role in music life in Northern Germany in the 17th century - or more than one voice per part was used. The large space of the Marienkirche, where the Abendmusiken took place, makes it unlikely the oratorio was performed with soloists only. Even so that is how the oratorio is performed here.

The present recording is the result of a project with teachers, examinees and students of the Hochschule für Künste Bremen. It has to be said that the result is impressive from a strictly musical point of view. The singers and players all give fine performances, and the sound of the ensemble is wel-balanced. But there are several aspects of this recording which make me hesitate to recommend it.

At the occasion of the commemoration of Buxtehude's death in 1707 no less than three complete recordings of this oratorio have been released, directed by Ton Koopman, Roland Wilson and Klaus Eichhorn respectively. As much as these three differ, it could be argued this very fact makes this recording of excerpts rather superfluous. What I find annoying is the reasoning for making cuts in this work. In the booklet Manfred Cordes writes: "The condensation of the work to concert length or CD playing time undertaken here aims at preserving the essential message of the libretto while eliminating some texts written in a language of pietistic ornateness that would be difficult for us to appreciate today". I thought the days had gone that conductors took such an arrogant stance towards both the music and today's audiences. Music history is full of compositions with texts not fundamentally different from those Buxtehude uses, and they are performed nevertheless. And how does Manfred Cordes know what kind of texts are difficult to swallow for today's audiences? How does he know what I can appreciate? If he can't appreciate some of the texts in this oratorio, he should perhaps stay away from it altogether. It is the task of the interpreter to present compositions as the composer has written them, without interfering on behalf of a 'virtual audience', so to speak. It can be left to the audience to decide whether they can appreciate those texts, which should always be understood in their historical context anyway.

Cordes continues: "The elimination of these texts means that their dramatic elements are brought more strongly into the foreground." Again I beg to differ. What does make Manfred Cordes believe his version surpasses Buxtehude's own in dramatic power? Actually, in comparison the complete recording by Roland Wilson is the more theatrical and dramatic of the two, just because there the story has the time to unfold. In addition the women in Wilson's recording are more successful in portraying the different characters they impersonate. In this recording Harry van der Kamp is by far the most dramatic as he sings the part of the Voice of God with great power and authority.

There are other strange things here. As I already wrote the characters have become nameless in Acts 2 and 3, but even so in the booklet their names are still used there. Twice texts from the Bible are given to the tenor, which is referred to as 'Christ' in the booklet. But Buxtehude's scoring nowhere mentions Christ, so I assume this is an invention by the conductor. The first time the tenor quotes Proverbs 8, vv 17-21, which begins with the words: "I love those who love me, and those who search for me in time, shall find me." These are the words of Wisdom, who is presented as a person in this chapter of Proverbs. One could argue Wisdom is in fact no one but Christ himself, but specifically referring to him undermines the logic of the second act, which concentrates on the opposition of the pious who look for wisdom and the godless who are longing for wealth. Early in this act the Voice of God quotes another part of Proverbs (3, vv 13-18): "Happy is the man who finds wisdom and he who acquires understanding. For they are better to handle than silver, and their revenues are better than gold." The reference to Christ makes more sense at the end of the third act, where John 14, v 13 is quoted: "I will come to you and take you with me, so that you are where I am." But the fact remains that Buxtehude doesn't refer to Christ here either.

"Buxtehude died in 1707. It is in token of its special musical attachment to the repertoire of this Northern German master and as an expression of its obligation to perform and promote his works that the Early Music Department of the Bremen College of the Arts has undertaken the present production of his music on the occasion of the three hundredth anniversary of his death", Manfred Cordes writes. I have to say that Ton Koopman, Klaus Eichhorn and in particular Roland Wilson have all done a better job in paying tribute to Buxtehude by obeying the master's wishes.

Johan van Veen (© 2007)

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