Dietrich Buxtehude: Scandinavian Cantatas
01 April 2011
Johan van Veen
The commemoration of Buxtehude's death in 2007 resulted in
widespread interest in his vocal works. Buxtehude left more
than 120 such pieces, which is remarkable considering that as
organist of St Mary's in Lübeck he was not responsible for the
vocal music for the liturgy. Some of his sacred music may have
been performed during the services on Sundays and feast-days,
but most of it was probably intended for performance during
public concerts, in particular the famous Abendmusiken.
His vocal works are written on texts in four different languages:
German, Latin, Swedish and Italian. The largest proportion have
German texts, but the number of pieces on a Latin text is considerable.
This is not as odd as one may think. When Martin Luther reformed
the liturgy he stressed the importance of the use of texts in
the vernacular, but he never wanted to abolish Latin altogether.
It seems there was a preference for liturgical music in Latin
in St Mary's in Lübeck. An inventory of the printed music in
the possession of the church shows that a large portion set
This disc is devoted to music on Latin and Swedish texts. Pange
lingua gloriosi is the setting of a text attributed to Thomas
of Aquinas and was written for the feast of Corpus Christi.
This isn't celebrated in the Lutheran church, and it is suggested
it could have been performed during the distribution of the
communion at any time of the ecclesiastical year. It is one
of those pieces in which Buxtehude merges the forms of concerto
and aria. The text is strophic, but the music is through-composed.
Ecce nunc benedicite is a setting of Psalm 134 (133),
one of the pilgrim's Psalms, which has only three verses. It
is scored for lower voices: alto, two tenors and bass, and is
divided in four sections: the first verse is split into two
episodes. All begin with a solo which is then extended to a
four-part texture. This creates a kind of crescendo which reflects
the text of this psalm in which the pilgrims urge each other
to bless the Lord.
Buxtehude scholar Kerala J. Snyder states in the liner-notes
that Domine salvum fac regem (O Lord, save the king)
is more likely to have been written for use in the kingdom of
Sweden - by Buxtehude's friend Gustav Düben who was Kapellmeister
at the court in Stockholm - than in Lübeck, which was an free
imperial city and ruled by a council. The character of this
piece with its emphasis on the tutti supports this view. Accedite
gentes is attributed to Buxtehude, but its authenticity
is highly unlikely. The text is an anonymous paraphrase of selected
verses from the Book of Psalms. It is written in a quite dramatic
style, and at several moments reminded me of the oratorios of
Giacomo Carissimi, for instance the way the word "pereant"
(perish) is set. Voices and instruments are more integrated
in this piece than usual in Buxtehude's vocal works in which
the instruments mostly play the ritornellos.
A remarkable composition is the Missa alla brevis whose
authenticity has been doubted as well, but which seems to be
from Buxtehude's pen after all. It is written in the stile
antico, the old style of the renaissance which was still
held in high esteem in the 17th century. The title refers to
the longer note values and the tactus on the brevis, but also
to the fact that it is a missa brevis, consisting of
Kyrie and Gloria only. It is scored for five voices with basso
Buxtehude has written two pieces on Swedish texts, which have
both been recorded here. Herren vår Gud is a four-part
chorale setting and was probably commissioned by Gustav Düben.
The text is a poetic paraphrase of Psalm 20; Buxtehude has set
the first and last stanzas with the melody from a Swedish hymnal
from 1697. The instruments play interjections between the phrases.
Att du Jesu vill mig höra is the only piece on this disc
which is not preserved in the Düben Collection, but has been
found in the collection of Henrich Christoffer Engelhardt, who
was organist in various Swedish cities in the early 18th century.
It is an aria for solo voice and basso continuo, with the instruments
playing a sinfonia and ritornellos. It is a prayer for forgiveness
which explains its mournful character.
The programme is rounded off with two organ works. The Prelude
in e minor is a typical specimen of the stylus phantasticus,
and consists of an improvisatory opening section which is followed
by two fugues. Then after another short episode in free style
the piece concludes with another fugue. The Passacaglia in
d minor is one of Buxtehude's most famous organ pieces.
Buxtehude was one of the first in Germany to write organ music
based on an ostinato bass pattern.
Bine Bryndorf plays these two pieces well, but I would have
liked a more dramatic treatment of the second fugue of the Prelude
in e minor. The various episodes of the Passacaglia could have
been more differentiated. It is praiseworthy that she also plays
the basso continuo at the large organ of St Mary's in Helsingør.
I have noticed this practice in several recent recordings of
music by Buxtehude and his contemporaries. This is a most satisfying
development, as it is much more in line with the performances
in Buxtehude's time than the use of a small positive. It also
makes the basso continuo more present.
The singers give generally good performances, and they have
a good command of this repertoire. I am particularly impressed
by the singing of the two tenors Adam Riis and Johan Linderoth
and the bass Jakob Bloch Jespersen. But I am less satisfied
with the two sopranos Else Torp and Bente Vist and the alto
William Purefroy who use too much vibrato. It is rather curious
that in the Missa alla brevis they do without it. So
why not in the other pieces as well? That would have made this
disc even more enjoyable than it is. Also hard to understand
is the Italian pronunciation of the Latin texts.
These critical remarks shouldn't dissuade you from purchasing
this disc. The music is wonderful, and the performances are
good enough to reveal the quality of this music. The booklet
contains liner-notes by the internationally renowned Buxtehude
scholar Kerala J. Snyder as well as the lyrics, all of them
in English, German and Danish.