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Dietrich BUXTEHUDE: Sonatas Opus 1 & Opus 2

[I] "VII Suonate, op. 1"
The Purcell Quartet
rec: Nov 26 - 27, 2008 & Jan 5, 2009, Orford (Suffolk), Church of St Bartholomew
Chandos - CHAN0766 (© 2010) (56'53")
Liner-notes: E/F/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sonata I in F, op. 1,1 (BuxWV 252)b; Sonata II in G, op. 1,2 (BuxWV 253)b; Sonata III in a minor, op. 1,3 (BuxWV 254)a; Sonata IV in B flat, op. 1,4 (BuxWV 255)a; Sonata V in C, op. 1,5 (BuxWV 256)b; Sonata VI in d minor, op. 1,6 (BuxWV 257)a; Sonata VII in e minor, op. 1,7 (BuxWV 258)b

Catherine Mackintosha, Catherine Weissb, violin; Richard Boothby, viola da gamba; Robert Woolley, harpsichord

[II] "VII Suonate, op. 2"
The Purcell Quartet
rec: Feb 21 - 23, 2011, London, All Saints' Church, East Finchley
Chandos - CHAN 0784 (© 2012) (62'55")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sonata I in B flat, op. 2,1 (BuxWV 259)a; Sonata II in D, op. 2,2 (BuxWV 260)a; Sonata III in g minor, op. 2,3 (BuxWV 261)b; Sonata IV in c minor, op. 2,4 (BuxWV 262)a; Sonata V in A, op. 2,5 (BuxWV 263)a; Sonata VI in E, op. 2,6 (BuxWV 264)b; Sonata VII in F, op. 2,7 (BuxWV 265)b

Catherine Mackintosha, Catherine Weissb, violin; Richard Boothby, viola da gamba; Robert Woolley, harpsichord

Dietrich Buxtehude's chambre music comprises two collections of seven sonatas each, printed as op. 1 and op. 2 respectively, and eight sonatas which have been preserved in manuscript. The latter are in different scorings: one or two violins - with or without viola da gamba - or viola da gamba solo, all with basso continuo. The two printed collections only include sonatas of the scoring which was particularly popular in northern Germany: violin, viola da gamba and bc. These were printed in about 1694 and 1696 respectively but were not the first sonatas by Buxtehude. In 1684 the publication of another collection was advertised, but this has never been found. It is impossible to say whether it has been lost or perhaps never printed. The title is interesting because of the reference to its use for the church and the 'table', the latter meaning that they could be played during dinner. It is reasonable to assume that the sonatas op. 1 and op. 2 were written with the same purpose in mind.

The sonatas may have been played by the members of the Ratsmusik in Lübeck, an ensemble of highly skilled and versatile musicians. They played at official events, but also in the private homes of wealthy citizens, and participated in the Abendmusiken which took place in the Advent period. Another possibility is that Buxtehude himself played his sonatas with his colleagues and friends from Hamburg, Johann Theile and Johann Adam Reinken.

The sonatas have no fixed form; they consist rather of a variable number of sections of varied length, character and metre. Quick succession of contrasting sections is one of the features of the stylus phantasticus which had its roots in Italian music of the early 17th century and left its mark not only on music for instrumental ensemble but also on keyboard works. The German theorist Johann Mattheson stated that "this style is the most free and unrestrained manner of composing, singing, and playing that one can imagine, for one hits first on this idea and then upon that one, since one is bound neither to words nor to melody, only to harmony, so that the singer and player can display his skill".

It is of vital importance to realise this character of the chamber music from northern Germany of the 17th century. Another important aspect is that there was a close connection between speech and music. German theorists of the 17th century compare musicians with orators. A composition had to follow the rules of rhetoric in its structure and organisation of material. Obviously performers need to be aware of this in order to do justice to the character of a composition. This means that the performance should be speech-like, as an instrumental translation of the early baroque ideal of recitar cantando.

It is exactly in this department that the interpretations of The Purcell Quartet fail to convince. The first disc is neatly played but rather dull. The sonatas are quite dramatic thanks to the quick succession of contrasting sections but the contrasts are severely underexposed. That is also due to the fact that the tempi are too moderate: the fast sections are mostly too slow, the slow sections not slow enough. Dynamically the playing is as flat as a pancake. There is also too little differentiation between stressed and unstressed notes. The performances are slightly better at the second disc: the contrasts are stronger and the instruments also have more presence. The latter could in part be down to the recording.

Even so, in the end these two discs are rather disappointing. Buxtehude's music is much more dramatic and exciting than the interpretations of The Purcell Quartet suggest. The recording of these two collections by L'Estravagante is a much better choice.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

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