, November 2007
If you are as yet unfamiliar with this music, I urge you to buy this or one of the earlier CDs in the series.
This is the sixth volume in the ongoing Naxos series of Buxtehude’s organ music. It has been something of a long haul, begun in 2001, and with a year’s gap between the recording dates of this and the last volume. The pace is now accelerated for the composer’s fourth centenary: as I complete this review, I note that Volume 7 is due for release on October 29th, 2007. Like Volume 5, and like the forthcoming Volume 7, the music on this CD is performed by Julia Brown on the organ of St Cecilia Cathedral, Omaha. My colleague Chris Bragg (CB) gave a detailed description of this remarkable organ and its capabilities in hisreview of Volume 5, a review which also contains hyperlinks to the website of Martin Pasi, the organ’s creator, and to the reviews of volumes 1-4 of this series.
This is, indeed, an instrument for all seasons. The specification in the booklet indicates that most of the stops on the Great Organ and Pedals, plus all those on the Positive Organ, are capable of being played in both well-tempered tuning and ¼ comma mean-tone, thus making it suitable for music of Buxtehude’s time and earlier. Not being blessed with perfect pitch, I take as gospel CB’s word that Julia Brown probably uses only the mean-tone stops. As a keyboard player, he may have little more sense of perfect pitch than I do, but he recognises the odd occasion when the music goes beyond the capabilities of the tuning and sounds, as he puts it ‘rancid’. It would have been helpful if the booklet had indicated the registration and tuning employed for each piece, but I did not hear any such ‘rancid’ moments on this volume.
Otherwise, like CB, I was very impressed with the sound which the organ makes – I imagine that it would sound equally right for seventeenth-century French music – and the sympathetic acoustic in which it is recorded. Indeed, the recording is pretty well beyond reproach: I was not aware of any impediment between me and the music in listening to this CD – it sounded equally well on both my set-ups.
I found Julia Brown’s performances at least as impressive as CB found those on the earlier recording. I recognised the virtues which he praised without sharing his feeling that her playing is a little too quirky at times. I note that she is a former doctoral student of Wolfgang Rübsam, who is named as ‘Producer, Engineer and Editor’ of this recording. It may be that I have grown so accustomed to his style, on his many Naxos Bach recordings, that I do not notice any of the rhythmical eccentricity of which CB complains in his former student. Sometimes the music of Buxtehude, Bach and their contemporaries benefits from a little ‘nudge’ here and there.
Julia Brown also performed the music on the second CD in this series, though on a different organ. Gary Higginson praised her performance and choice of registration on that disc, comments which I am pleased to endorse as applicable here, too. I also endorse his comments on the quality of the recording.
Though the actual registration employed for each piece is not indicated, it never seemed to me inappropriate. The organ contains both 16’ and 32’ sub-bass pedal stops but these feature only in well-tempered tuning: the fact that I do not hear them here – not that I wanted to hear them in this music – adds to my belief that CB is correct in assuming that mean-tone is employed throughout. Some of the music, such as the Canzona in C (track 2) is scored for manuals only – perhaps intended for alternative use on the harpsichord or clavichord – and these pieces are played with appropriate delicacy of touch, though that should not be taken to mean that Julia Brown makes them sound like the aural equivalents of Meissen figurines.
The programme on this CD is very similar to that on Volume 5: Four Præludia, several Chorale Preludes, a Magnificat on the first tone, a Canzona, a Canzonetta, a 5-movement Partita and a Toccata. It is an attractive programme and would make as good an introduction as any to the organ music of Buxtehude. If you are as yet unfamiliar with this music, I urge you to buy this or one of the earlier CDs in the series. As Don Satz writes in hisreview of Volume 4 , “Buxtehude’s organ music is one of the glories of the Baroque period. Readers not familiar with this body of works are advised to investigate and reap the tremendous rewards.” Of the works on this recording I have been able to find only the Canzonetta in a (track 8)online. (The opening bars of this online edition do not quite match what Julia Brown plays.)
Of course, it helps to know the original Lutheran chorales on which the Chorale Preludes are based, as also in the case of Bach’s works of this type: the original hearers would, of course, have been as familiar with the tunes of these chorales as congregations were in the more recent past with the Missa de Angelis. It doesn’t matter that we modern listeners are most unlikely to be familiar with these Chorales, but it does mean that we are likely to appreciate the free-form works more fully.
Perhaps that is why the Præludia and the other free-form works come over more effectively on this recording – or perhaps it is because these works were to be influential on the next generation of organ composers, including Bach. The fugal sections of the Præludia make them effectively Preludes and Fugues which Bach might have been proud to have written. Bach certainly learned from his visit to Lübeck: when he returned to Arnstadt, the council chided him not only for neglect of duty but more importantly for introducing various strange embellishments and alien notes – “viele wunderliche variationes und viele frembde Thone” – into the hymns. Appropriately, one of Buxtehude’s Præludia opens the CD and another closes it. Both approach the quality of Bach’s best music and both are well performed.
Whereas we can appreciate the quality of composition and the virtuosity of the playing for their own sakes in the free-form pieces, part of the game in writing Chorale Preludes was (almost) to hide the tune so that it was just recognisable if the listeners searched for it. Some recordings of Bach’s Chorale Preludes include the chorale tunes themselves so that the modern listener may recognise them. That does not happen here. The programming of two variations on Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herrn, however, one longer and more elaborate than the other, does give the modern listener the opportunity to compare two treatments of the same chorale melody.
Other ongoing series of Buxtehude’s music currently vie for our attention. Perhaps Naxos’s own reissue of some of his choral works on 8.557251, enthusiastically recommended by my colleaguesGlyn Pursglove and Marsk Sealey in April 2007, should take pride of place, closely followed by another Naxos CD of his choral music on 8.557041, recommended byJohn France in 2004.
Don’t overlook what this new Naxos CD has to offer, not least the notes from Keith Anderson, as informative as ever: as accessible to the novice as to the expert.