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Paul Turok
Turok’s Choice, December 2009

BUXTEHUDE, D.: Harpsichord Music, Vol. 2 (Mortensen) 8.570580
BUXTEHUDE, D.: Harpsichord Music, Vol. 3 (Mortensen) 8.570581

Two discs of Buxtehude’s fine harpsichord music, well played by Lars Ulrik Mortensen, have been reissued from the DaCapo label (8.570580, 8.570581).

Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, January 2009

Lars Ulrik Mortensen’s series of Buxtehude’s harpsichord music continues apace with this second release from Naxos. Like the first, there is much to enjoy here, even though these pieces are comparatively smaller works except for the variations on More Palatino and the Suites in G and E Minor. The former, based on a student drinking song, is a delightful excursion into Buxtehude’s kitchen, so to speak; his variations are more dance-like, less complex, than his writing in the sonatas. The Suite in G Minor, on the other hand, is less regular in rhythm, less predictable in its direction. Its construction is based more on an exploration of harmony and rhythm than on any melodic or thematic content. The Courante, in particular, is richly scored for its time, using full keyboard effects that were little exploited in that era.

I really enjoyed the Fugue in C, a lively 6/8 tune, full of swagger, the contrapuntal lines set spinning about 45 seconds into the piece and continuing to build throughout its brief duration of less than three minutes—it builds to a strong climax before leveling off, surprisingly, to a quiet finish. The Courant Zimble with 8 Variations I found to be even more interesting than its predecessor, each of the short movements flowing into one another like little mountain trickles into a stream; each succeeding variation almost seemed a variant, not of the original theme, but of the variation preceding. In the fifth variation, he puts the damper on and explores very dry, low-register plectrum effects with good results; in the seventh, the damper is only partway on and he explores the upper middle registers. This is indeed Buxtehude at his best. The Canzonetta in G was pleasant but not terribly interesting.

The Suite in E Minor, similar in structure and approach to the one in G Minor, was to my ears more “regular” in its construction, a shade less innovative, yet nonetheless effective on its own terms. I didn’t mind hearing it once, but it’s not a piece I would revisit except for the final Gigue, livelier and more inventive than its predecessor is. The Canzona in G, longer than the Canzonetta, went through some changes in tempo and mood, with odd pauses and stutter-rhythm here and there. I found the concluding setting of Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren to be a very low-key piece for a closer.

As in his previous issue, Mortensen’s playing is delightful, full of odd rubato touches that make (to reverse the Biblical quote used by Handel) “the plain places rough.” Sound quality is phenomenal, natural, clear, and wholly realistic.

Glyn Pursglove
MusicWeb International, September 2008

Mortensen is a fine musician, whose approach to Buxtehude is vivacious and dignified in equal proportions. His Buxtehude has both passion and seriousness—but not solemnity—of mind. Mortensen makes sparkling use of the resources of his instrument, a copy by Thomas Mandrup-Poulsen of an original by Ruckers. …It sings delightfully – at least it does when played by Mortensen! The use of mean-tone tuning will surely disturb very few modern listeners.

The theme of the set of variations on More Palatino (not More Palantino as printed on the back cover) is a student drinking song, though the rather stately form in which Buxtehude presents it is not especially redolent of the tavern. Still, it is an attractive and melodically various set, Mortensen’s varying use of registration producing some charming effects and some insistently dancing rhythms. The same is true of a second set of variations played here, those on Courant Zimble —a title we might translate as ‘Simple Courante’, and aptly so, since it is an uncomplicated piece which invites—and gets—some direct and appealing variations from Buxtehude. Mortensen resists the temptation to over-inflate these or make any excessive claims for them.

Each of the two Suites is made up four movements, in the order Allemande-Courante-Sarabande-Gigue. In each work the allemande is the most substantial movement, considerably longer than any of the other three movements. The allemandes also tend to have a greater musical gravity, that which opens Bux WV 242 being particularly grand in manner and phrasing; the courantes have, by way of contrast, a rippling vitality, that in Bux WV 25 being full of pleasant twists and turns. Buxtehude’s sarabandes have a graceful simplicity about them, a quality heard to perfection in Mortensen’s performances of the two in these suites, especially that in the E minor suite, where the registration is beautifully judged and employed. The gigues of the two suites make more much use of counterpoint, especially in comparison to the simpler lines of the sarabandes which precede them. But these are by no means academic fugues and in both suites the final movements very forcefully remember the dance origins of the gigue.

All of the shorter pieces in this programme have their genuine attractions and all are well characterised by Mortensen. The chorale ‘Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren’ is more often heard on the organ, although it makes no requirements that the harpsichord can’t fulfil—as Mortensen persuasively demonstrates. Indeed there is a particular sprightliness to this reading that is distinct from anything that can be achieved on the baroque organ and which offers an alternative, equally valid, view of the music. Bux WV 170, 171 and 174 are pieces which survive amongst the manuscripts of Buxtehude’s organ music but which, again, are eminently playable on the harpsichord. The fugal writing here is more ‘correct’ than in the gigues of the suites, but don’t let that make you imagine that these are unduly staid pieces. Here they have the same vivacity which characterises this programme as a whole and they are played with the same loving care for the aptness of instrumental sound and tone.

Without wanting to claim Mortensen’s as the ‘best’ recordings of Buxtehude’s harpsichord works—if one had to pick I suppose the vote might go to Ton Koopman —there is not the slightest reason to feel in any way dissatisfied with this fine recital. If you don’t know Buxtehude’s writing for harpsichord—this is an excellent value-for-money place to start; if you are already an aficionado of this repertoire you will surely be just as keen to add this to your collection.

James Manheim, August 2008

This is the second disc of Buxtehude harpsichord music from Danish keyboardist Lars Ulrik Mortensen…It’s a rather motley group…with flashes of Buxtehude’s iconoclastic brilliance…the music on this disc, performed at Buxtehude’s Lübeck church Abendmusiken, occupied a semi-religious space and musically convincing.

Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International, July 2008

Still the new and reissued CDs of Buxtehude are coming through, though the centenary year is well behind us. Naxos has yet to complete its series of organ recordings and their partner label Dacapo has just completed its own survey of the organ works. Challenge Classics have embarked on a series of recordings of the Complete Works under the direction of Ton Koopman, including both organ and harpsichord works.

This Naxos offering is a reissue of Dacapo 8.224117 and a successor to Volume 1 (8.570579) which, I think, has slipped through the MusicWeb review net. This recording was well received on its first appearance and the name of Lars Ulrik Mortensen is almost a guarantee of the quality of the performances, a guarantee fully honoured in the event.

Mortensen’s instrument is a copy of a Ruckers, employing mean-tone tuning. I know that some listeners with a sense of perfect pitch sometimes find it difficult to adapt to anything other than equal temperament – itself a compromise to the ears of string players – but few will find a problem with the tuning or sound of this instrument. It’s not one of those old fashioned monsters but it’s no wilting violet either, especially as it’s recorded fairly closely. To borrow from St Paul, it’s no sounding gong, nor is it a tinkling cymbal. Unless I’ve missed it, the booklet doesn’t offer details of the pitch but I have no reason to doubt that it’s within baroque parameters, unlike some of the Buxtehude organ recordings which I’ve recently reviewed, where the pitch of an historic organ has been tampered with over the centuries.

Early music didn’t usually mean anything earlier than Bach. As undergraduates in the early 1960s, my friends and I still considered the Brandenburg Concertos and The Four Seasons almost with the delight of finding archeological artifacts. However perceptions have been so stretched in recent decades that Buxtehude’s music is no longer considered esoteric, even before the impetus of the 2007 centenary. Nevertheless, though I knew Buxtehude’s vocal and organ works, it is only recently that his chamber music and harpsichord pieces have impinged on my consciousness, mainly thanks to Naxos (see my review of Volume 3 of his chamber music on 8.557250).

The most considerable work here is the first item, the twelve variations (on a student drinking song, though you wouldn’t realise it) on tracks 1-12. If you thought that Brahms had toned down the raucous element in the student song Gaudeamus igitur, for his Academic Festival Overture – a necessary precaution, given Cambridge’s somewhat puritanical reputation in contrast to its more tolerant elder sibling – you may well be surprised at how much more Buxtehude has tidied up this piece. That’s not to say, however, that he has made it po-faced – far from it – or that it receives anything other than a most enjoyable performance here, especially the light-toned finale on track 12.

Some of the music on this recording is equally at home on the organ and the harpsichord, which explains why the Courant Zimble with 8 variations, BuxWV245, may also be found on Julia Brown’s recording of the complete organ works (Vol. 7, Naxos 8.570312 - see review). Mortensen’s performance of that piece is a good deal faster than Brown’s (7:24 against 10:18) but both are excellent within their own terms. The lighter-toned harpsichord lends itself to Mortensen’s nimble performance, which may be less appropriate on the heavier-toned organ … which is not to imply that Brown’s chosen registration is inappropriate.

I haven’t been able to compare Ton Koopman’s recordings of the organ and harpsichord works; it will be interesting to see if, as I expect, where there is an overlap, even the same performer adopts different tempi for the different instruments. Don’t be puzzled by the term Courant zimble – it took me a long time when reviewing the earlier CD to figure out that zimble is just a variant spelling of the French word simple.

That same Julia Brown recording also offers the Canzona in G, BuxWV170. Again, she takes more time than Mortensen, though the differences are not so extreme this time – 4:00 against 4:28. Once again, for the reasons stated above, I was perfectly happy with both interpretations.

The Fugue in C, BuxWV174 also features on Bine Bryndorf’s sixth and final volume of the organ works (Dacapo compatible SACD 6.220530). Here, too, the organ performance is a trifle slower than the harpsichord (2:52 against 3:00). Bryndorf’s tempi tend to be more nimble than Brown’s where the two overlap, which is one reason why I slightly preferred the DaCapo recordings, but once again all three are excellent within their own terms. Dacapo Volume 6 also offers the Canzona, BuxWV170 – a three-way comparison of this piece indicates that Bryndorf is the most nimble here at 3:41, though the differences are not great in this piece.

There is one item in common between this CD and another Naxos collection of Buxtehude’s harpsichord works, performed by Glen Wilson on 8.557413 (see review). Mortensen and Wilson take almost exactly equal times for the Canzonetta in G, BuxWV171 – just one second difference – and, much as my colleagues and other reviewers enjoyed the Wilson recording, I cannot imagine that his performance is any improvement on Mortensen’s.

The final work, Nun lob, mein Seel, BuxWV215, also features on a Julia Brown recording, this time on Volume 6 (Naxos 8.570311 – see review). Here, too, Mortensen is faster than Brown (2:18 against 2:50); once again, I found both interpretations plausible within context.

If I have concentrated on the performances which overlap with other recordings, be assured that the music is all enjoyable, that Mortensen’s playing throughout is little short of exemplary and the recording close but not unduly so.

The notes are an abridgement of Kerela Snyder’s for the Dacapo issue. I could have done without the biographical details in exchange for more about the music, but I realise that these notes are written for all levels and that beginners will be more interested in some facts about the composer’s life than the pitch of the instrument. As usual with Naxos, the cover design is tasteful and the illustration apt.

Naxos offers an extra inducement in the form of a free download from its ClassicsOnline website, a Toccata from Froberger’s Toccatas and Partitas IV.

When you place your order for this recording – and for volume 1, if you don’t yet have it – don’t forget Naxos’s other contributions to Buxtehude year:

  • the complete organ music, which has now reached Volume 7
  • the two volumes of vocal music (review of Vol. 2)
  • the recently completed organ recordings on sister label Dacapo

The Dacapo set ran to three CDs; I hope that we shall soon have the remaining volume, which contains some of Buxtehude’s best music.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, June 2008

It is good to find a label championing the music of Dietrich Buxtehude, a composer who is fast becoming little known outside of the organ loft. Probably born in Denmark, details of his early life are poorly chronicled, and our first accurate knowledge of his career comes in 1667 when he was appointed organist in Lubeck, a position that gave him considerable influence over the future development of German music. It is accepted that he was the leading keyboard expert of his day, though, as was custom with music at that time, his compositions did not stipulate the intended performing instrument.This present series  seeks to explore those works that he may have performed on the harpsichord, though many may well have been played on the organ. Certainly the style of the two Suites would suggest intimate surroundings rather than church use, but I could picture the Fugue in C (BuxWV 174) on the more substantial organ. Such conjecture does nothing to detract from the playing of Lars Ulrik Mortensen who first came into international recognition as the harpsichordist with London Baroque. He is an elegant player that is not inclined to  explosive showmanship, yet he does breath life into music that can sound academically stuffy. I particularly enjoy his account of the Courant Zimble with 8 Variations (BuxWV 245) and the vivid reading of the Canzonetta in G (BuxWV 171). The series is derived from previous Dacapo releases that were made when Mortensen was named Danish Musician of the Year 2000. The sound quality is warm and clear.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group