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Dieterich BUXTEHUDE (1637 - 1707): "Salvator Mundi"

Ricercar Consort
Dir: Philippe Pierlot

rec: Oct 10 - 15, 2022, La Lucerne-d'Outremer, Abbaye Sainte-Trinité de La Lucerne
Mirare - MIR 668 (© 2023) (72'27")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Befiehl dem Engel, dass er komm (BuxWV 10); Fürwahr, er trug unsere Krankheit (BuxWV 31); Herr, ich lasse dich nicht (BuxWV 36); Herzlich lieb hab ich dich, o Herr (BuxWV 41); Ich bin die Auferstehung und das Leben (BuxWV 44); Jesu meines Lebens Leben (BuxWV 62); Laudate pueri Dominum (BuxWV 69); Quemadmodum desiderat cervus (BuxWV 92)

Hanna Bayodi-Hirt, Yetzabel Arias, soprano; David Sagastume, alto; Hugo Hymas, tenor; Matthias Vieweg, bass; Adrien Mabire, Gawain Glenton, cornett; Guy Ferber, Xavier Gendreau, trumpet; Sophie Gent, Augustin Lusson, violin, viola da gamba; Philippe Pierlot, Anna Lachegyi, Clémence Schiltz, Mathias Ferré, viola da gamba; Benoît Vanden Bemden, violone; Giovanna Pessi, harp; Daniel Zapico, theorbo; Paul Goussot, organ

Passiontide has been and still is one of the most important parts of the ecclesiastical year in the Christian Church of the West. In Protestant Germany it was given special weight as Jesus's suffering and death at the Cross was the heart of Martin Luther's theology, known as 'theology of the Cross'. No wonder, then, that a large repertoire of hymns, motets, sacred concertos and cantatas from the late 16th century to the end of the 18th century has come down to us. Today we only know the top of the iceberg; not even all the Passions are known and available on disc. Moreover, it is reasonable to assume that a considerable part of the Passion repertoire has been lost.

Some Passion music has reached a kind of cult status. That goes for the two Passions by Johann Sebastian Bach, and Dieterich Buxtehude's cantata cycle Membra Jesu nostri comes pretty close to that. Although his sacred oeuvre is receiving more interest these days, partly due to the complete recording of his oeuvre by Ton Koopman, only a few cantatas have become really well-known. Some of these have found their place in the recording which is the subject of this review. The time of release suggests that it comprises music for Passiontide, but the titles of some cantatas may not immediately associated with this time of the year. However, although in some cases the connection seems far-fetched, one should not forget that Jesus's Passion is indeed the heart of Luther's theology and often resonates in the background of pieces that seem not really connected to Passiontide.

There can be no doubt about this connection in the case of the first item in the programme: Jesu, meines Lebens Leben. This is a hymn for Passiontide, written by Ernst Christoph Homburg (1659); the subtitle says that it is a "song of thanksgiving to his Saviour and Redeemer, for his bitter suffering". The hymn comprises eight stanzas, from which Buxtehude selected five, to which he added an Amen. It 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 the five stanzas from the hymn, each followed by a ritornello. The vocal scoring varies from solo voice (1: soprano; 3: tenor) to three (2: ATB; 4: SAB) or four voices (5).

The second piece is Fürwahr, er trug unsere Krankheit, which is a setting of two verses from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, which has always been interpreted as referring to the Passion of Christ: "Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed." It is one of Buxtehude's most dramatic works. It is scored for five voices and five instruments (two violins, two viole da gamba and violone) with basso continuo. The piece opens with a solo for the bass, who sings the first two lines, which are repeated later. Pauses, chromaticism and tremolos in the lower strings are some of the devices Buxtehude uses to express the content of this work.

We then move a little further away from Passiontide - or so it seems. However, Christ's words in John 11 can hardly be unlinked from his Passion: "I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die." Life everlasting is the direct result of his suffering and death, and that makes the inclusion of Ich bin die Auferstehung und das Leben easy to understand. It has the form of a sacred concerto for bass, two violins, two violas and basso continuo, to which Buxtehude adds pairs of trumpets and cornetts.

Laudate pueri Dominum is a setting of Psalm 113: "Praise the Lord, ye children". The connection with Passiontide is largely absent here. It is presented in the liner notes as "a counterpoint to the content of this disc's other cantatas". It is another piece based on a ciaccona, which is repeated twelve times. The scoring is remarkable: the two sopranos are accompanied by a consort of six viole da gamba and basso continuo.

Next is Befiehl dem Engel, daß er komm, 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".

Quemadmodum desiderat cervus opens with a setting of the first two verses of Psalm 42: "As the hart panteth after the fountains of water, so my soul panteth after thee, O God." It continues with a madrigalian text; the author is not mentioned. It is another ciaconna; the bass pattern is repeated 64 times. The longing of the psalmist is perfectly expressed in this setting. It is a virtuosic piece for tenor, who is accompanied by what was the standard scoring in Italy in the 17th century: two violins and basso continuo.

Several German composers of the 17th century have written dialogues, often about episodes from the New Testament, such as conversations of Jesus with people around him. We find them in the oeuvre of Heinrich Schütz, and Buxtehude's contemporary Johann Philipp Förtsch was particularly fond of this genre. Herr, ich lasse dich nicht is a dialogue between Jacob (tenor) and an unknown man, who is in fact God himself (bass). Genesis 32 tells about Jacob's struggling with a man at night. His opponent is not able to beat him; he blesses Jacob and gives him the name of Israel. Buxtehude has created a dramatic piece, in which Buxtehude makes use of the stile concitato. The two voices sing alternatively and simultaneously. Together they close the piece with an Alleluia. The instrumental scoring is for two violins, two violas, viola da gamba, violone and basso continuo.

The disc closes with another hymn arrangement, Herzlich lieb hab ich dich o Herr (Martin Schalling, 1569). 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 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.

It is not so easy to produce a disc with music for Passiontide by Buxtehude, as he seems not to have written much for this stage in the ecclesiastical year, except the Membra Jesu nostri. However, as I indicated at the start of this review, other pieces can be interpreted in connection with the Passion of Christ, as it takes a central place in Lutheran thinking. Even though the connection may be absent or rather loose, it does not diminish the value of this disc. The fact that there is not that much music which in some way can be connected to Passiontide, explains why this disc does not include any pieces that are little-known. In fact, all of them are available in more than one recording. Even so, this disc deserves its place in the Buxtehude discography, thanks to the quality of the performers. Philippe Pierlot always has fine singers at his disposal, and that results in excellent performances, as is the case here. Now and then I noted some unnecessary vibrato in the sopranos, but it is hardly disturbing. Hugo Hymas and Matthias Vieweg make a particularly good impression. The instrumental parts are given splendid performances by the Ricercar Consort.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

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