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Dieterich BUXTEHUDE (1637 - 1707): Trio sonatas Op. 1 & Op. 2

[I] "Sonate à doi, Violine & Viola da gamba con Cembalo, opus 1 & 2"
Les Timbres
rec: April & August 2017, April 2018, Bolland
Flora - FLORA4320 (2 CDs) (2.11.05")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

Yoko Kawakubo, violin; Myriam Rignol, viola da gamba; Julien Wolfs, harpsichord

[II] "Trio sonatas Op. 2"
rec: Feb 2020, London, St Augustine's Church, Kilburn Park Road
Alpha - 738 (© 2021) (71'25")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sophie Gent, violin; Jonathan Manson, viola da gamba; Thomas Dunford, lute; Jonathan Cohen, harpsichord

Sonata I in F, op. 1,1 (BuxWV 252) [I]; Sonata II in G, op. 1,2 (BuxWV 253) [I]; Sonata III in a minor, op. 1,3 (BuxWV 254) [I]; Sonata IV in B flat, op. 1,4 (BuxWV 255) [I]; Sonata V in C, op. 1,5 (BuxWV 256) [I]; Sonata VI in d minor, op. 1,6 (BuxWV 257) [I]; Sonata VII in e minor, op. 1,7 (BuxWV 258)
Sonata I in B flat, op. 2,1 (BuxWV 259); Sonata II in D, op. 2,2 (BuxWV 260); Sonata III in g minor, op. 2,3 (BuxWV 261); Sonata IV in c minor, op. 2,4 (BuxWV 262); Sonata V in A, op. 2,5 (BuxWV 263); Sonata VI in E, op. 2,6 (BuxWV 264); Sonata VII in F, op. 2,7 (BuxWV 265)


Lübeck, where Dieterich Buxtehude worked for most of his life as organist, was one of the main centres of music in the northern part of Germany during the 17th century. That was not only due to the organist of the Marienkirche, who took a key role in music life, but also to the presence of highly-skilled players of instruments such as the violin and the viola da gamba. Some of them were members of the Ratsmusik, the ensemble employed by the town council. The players usually mastered more than one instrument. One of them was Hans Iwe, Buxtehude's assistant, who played the violin, the viola da gamba and the violone.

There were many opportunities to play: not only was the Ratsmusik expected to perform at official occasions, but they also participated in the Abendmusiken, which Buxtehude's predecessor, Franz Tunder, had established as well as during Sunday and feast-day services. In addition, they played in private surroundings, such as the homes of the town's upper class. The members of the Ratsmusik played repertoire from across Europe as well as music written in Lübeck. It seems likely that Buxtehude's trio sonatas were written for them. He may also have performed them himself, for instance with colleagues from Hamburg, as he had close ties with in particular Johann Theile and Johann Adam Reincken.

Buxtehude's sonatas have a trio texture, but whereas the Italians preferred the combination of two violins and bass, in northern Germany composers opted mostly for a combination of violin, bass viol and basso continuo. Here also a specific style was developed which combined several elements. One of these was the polyphony of the English consort music, which had been brought to northern Germany in particular by William Brade (1560 - 1630) who had worked in Copenhagen and several German cities before settling in Hamburg. Secondly the instrumental music of this period shows the influence of the so-called stylus phantasticus of the North-German organ school, whose main features are its improvisatory character and contrasts in tempo, Affekt and metre. During the 17th century a third influence was added: the virtuosic style of solo playing from Italy. One can imagine that the collections of music published in Dresden by Carlo Farina, one of the main representatives of this style, has had some influence on musicians in Lübeck.

In Buxtehude's sonatas all three elements are represented, and he often combines them in an ingenious way. In the Sonata I in B flat, op. 2,1 (BuxWV 259), for instance, five different metres are used. In the Sonata II in D, op. 2,2 (BuxWV 260) the second movement is a fugue with the indication 'allegro', which all of a sudden shifts to a 'largo' - exactly what the stylus phantasticus is all about. Strong contrasts can also be found in the Sonata III in a minor, op. 1,3 (BuxWV 254): a vivace is surrounded by a lento and a largo which both contain harsh dissonances. Elsewhere Buxtehude makes a number of excursions to other keys, in particular in the Sonata VII in F, op. 2,7 (BuxWV 265). Instrumental virtuosity can be found in the Sonata V in A, op. 2,5 (BuxWV 263), whose second movement has the indication 'solo'; here the violinist can show his skills. It is one of the places in these sets of sonatas where Buxtehude requires double stopping. The following movement is described as concitato, a clear reference to the Italian style, especially the stile concitato which Monteverdi made use of. Later on in this sonata the viola da gamba also has a solo passage. There is some double stopping for the viola da gamba as well, in the Sonata VII in e minor, op. 1,7 (BuxWV 258). Other elements in these fourteen sonatas are variations on a subject and the regular use of a basso ostinato.

There is no lack of recordings of these sonatas. They were already part of the repertoire of instrumental ensembles before the commemoration of Buxtehude's death in 2007 resulted in a strong increase in the interest in his oeuvre at large, including the cantatas, which were almost completely neglected until then. Most recordings I have heard over the years were at least good and some were excellent. I am generally satisfied with the playing of the two ensembles which offer their interpretations on the two productions reviewed here. I have heard several recordings of Les Timbres which I enjoyed. A few years ago I also rated Arcangelo's recording of the Op. 1 sonatas positively.

That does not imply that there are no issues here. Overall Arcangelo's performance is probably the slightly more theatrical: the contrasts are more marked, the dynamic differentiation a little stronger and the articulation somewhat sharper. I like that, but from the angle of ensemble I rather prefer Les Timbres. The instruments' blending is better and the balance within the ensemble is more satisfying. The problem with Arcangelo is the same as I noticed in my review of the Op. 1 recording: the lute is too dominant. We know a painting by Johannes Voorhout, which could be a musical scene with Buxtehude, Theile and Reincken, and it includes a plucked instrument. That may well be used as an argument to include it in the basso continuo in these sonatas, but not to give it so much prominence, as it is here almost treated as an obbligato instrument, at the cost of the harpsichord.

Some may find this not much of a problem. As I already wrote, the playing is fine, and from that angle both recordings are well worth having. The fact that Les Timbres's production includes both the Op. 1 and Op. 2 speaks in its favour. We'll have to wait and see whether either of the ensembles (or both) will also record the remaining sonatas.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

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