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Dietrich BUXTEHUDE (1637 - 1707): "Harpsichord Works"

Glen Wilson, harpsichord

rec: July 2003, Rügheim, Schüttbau
Naxos - 8.557413 (© 2005) (55'19")

Aria in a minor (BuxWV 249); Aria: La Capricciosa (BuxWV 250); Auf meinen lieben Gott (BuxWV 179); Canzonetta in G (BuxWV 171); Praeludium in G (BuxWV 162); Praeludium in g minor (BuxWV 163); Suite in g minor (BuxWV 241); Toccata in G (BuxWV 165)

Dietrich Buxtehude died in 1707, which shall be commemorated next year. This has given the Dutch keyboard player and conductor Ton Koopman cause to start a complete recording of Buxtehude's extant works. Part of this are all compositions for keyboard, including those without a pedal part. This aspect of Buxtehude's oeuvre is generally considered being neglected by modern interpreters of baroque keyboard music. In fact the situation isn't as bad as one might think. As far as I can remember even in the vinyl era two complete recordings of Buxtehude's harpsichord works were released. And more recently Mitzi Meyerson, Lars Ulrik Mortensen and Rinaldo Alessandrini have recorded selections from the harpsichord music. But Buxtehude's name doesn't appear that frequently on the concert programmes of harpsichord players. And Glen Wilson is certainly right when he writes in the booklet of this disc that "Buxtehude's large corpus of brilliant organ music has overshadowed his equally impressive vocal and instrumental music", and, one might add, his harpsichord works. One can only hope the Buxtehude commemoration next year is going to change that, just like the previous Buxtehude year (1987) has contributed to the growing popularity of his chamber music and some vocal works, in particular the cantata cycle Membra Jesu nostri. This disc of harpsichord music is a good starting point to get acquainted with this part of Buxtehude's oeuvre.

That oeuvre isn't very large, but of high quality. It is rather surprising none of it was ever published during Buxtehude's lifetime, a fact which two of Germany's most prominent writers about music in the 18th century, Johann Mattheson and Johann Gottfried Walther, deeply regretted. According to Glen Wilson Buxtehude's pieces for harpsichord "seem at first glance rather conventional. They are deceptively simple, like Scarlatti or Mozart. It is hoped that this recording will contribute to a re-evaluation of Buxtehude as one of the finest German composers for the harpsichord of the seventeenth century, the only one worthy of mention in the same breath with Froberger. He did what Bach did half a century later: he took the forms he saw around him, French suites, Italian toccatas and canzonas, variation techniques from the German Sweelinck-school and later on from Rome, and made them unmistakeably his own."

This disc contains pieces which reflect these different influences. In his suites Buxtehude makes use of the style brisé of the French lute composers of the 17th century, which French harpsichord composers adopted. The Suite in g minor (BuxWV 241) follows the French pattern in its sequence of four dances: allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. This disc contains another suite, which can't be immediately recognized from its title: the chorale partita Auf meinen lieben Gott (BuxWV 179) isn't like chorale partitas by other German composers like Georg Böhm or - later - Johann Sebastian Bach. The variations on the chorale are written in the form of dances: the set starts with an allemande and its double, and continues with a sarabande, a courante and a gigue. A piece like this shows that there is no watershed between music played in church and at home. This chorale partita is probably first and foremost written to be played on the harpsichord at home, but there is no reason why it couldn't be played in church. And the use of sacred themes, like hymn tunes, in harpsichord music wasn't uncommon: Buxtehude's contemporary Georg Böhm composed several chorale partitas for keyboard without pedal, which can be played both on harpsichord and organ.

The Italian style is represented by the Toccata in G (BuxWV 165) which opens this disc. And just like the Italian composers of keyboard music Buxtehude isn't afraid of some pretty strong dissonances here and there. The two preludes, on the other hand, are typical examples of the German stylus phantasticus, the features of which are frequent runs, sudden shifts in tempo and rhythm and the alternation of imitative and free improvisatory sections.

The largest work on this disc is a set of variations on the Bergamasca, although the subject isn't mentioned in its title. As Glen Wilson writes there are many similarities between these variations and the Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach. One example of this is that the same subject, known in Germany as 'Kraut und Rüben', is quoted in the Quodlibet from the Goldberg Variations. Wilson believes here Bach paid homage to the master whom he admired and who had such a strong influence on him.

Glen Wilson has made an interesting and representative choice from Buxtehude's oeuvre for harpsichord. He uses a fine instrument, a copy of a Ruckers from 1626, built by Jan van Schevikhoven in Helsinki. The two manuals are used to great effect to underline the contrasts between the sections of a piece. Some sections are played on the upper manual, others on the lower, which is sometimes coupled with the upper manual. This way dynamic contrasts can be created. Glen Wilson's style of playing is strongly gestural and rhetorical, with a clear articulation. As a result this disc is a very eloquent plea for the harpsichord music by Dietrich Buxtehude.

Johan van Veen (© 2006)

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