BUXTEHUDE: Trio Sonatas; manuscripts d’Uppsala – La Reveuse – Mirare

BUXTEHUDE: Trio Sonatas; manuscripts d’Uppsala – La Reveuse – Mirare 303, 69:25 (4/14/17) *****:

(Stephan Dudermil – violin/ Florence Bolton – viola da gamba/ Benjamin Perrot – theorbo/ Emily Audouin – gamba/ Carsten Lohff – harpsichord/ Sebstien Wonner – organ)

Unpublished trio sonatas of Buxtehude played with passion and precision.

The legend is familiar. A young man named Johann Sebastian, leaving behind work and family responsibilities, journeys on foot 200 miles to see the great Buxtehude. He stands rapt beside the master, whose discourse illuminates the young disciple. He returns home, head buzzing with new ideas which are not immediately well received by his provincial congregation. The tale has the arc of a folk-tale, and as a historical anecdote, it gives us a nice view of Bach’s unfathomable origins. However, it doesn’t help us position Buxtehude in his age. This composer is best seen as an apogee and finest flowering of a specific musical culture and period rather than an antecedent to the singular Bach.

The Hanseatic cities of the Baltic represented a unique development of urbanity and political economy. Facing outward towards England, they flourished by means of the maritime trade and cultural exchange. In the Ratskeller across these culturally German towns, a democratic experiment took shape expressed in the motto Stadtluft macht Frei. A prosperous middle-class turned to music for refinement and relaxation after a busy day of counting money. So attractive were the musical opportunities in places like Lubeck and Hamburg, that English viol players such as Robert Simpson found their way thither.

Of course, the great art of the Italian masters, portable and ever adaptive, journeyed northward to the land of grey skies and lard and cabbage-based diet. The sonata forms of Corelli, with its learned counterpoint and the lyrical and inventive violin virtuosity, are the basis of the German Baroque as well. The term Stylus Phantasticus has been applied to a sub-genre of the Northern Baroque to designate an especially fiddle-heavy virtuosity as the dominant flavor in the trio sonata. The technical demands of this music are considerable and all the more surprising when we consider that this music was written for amateurs.

The trio sonatas of Buxtehude stand out from his vast work (mostly for organ) for their small number and pearly perfection. There is an Opus 1 set of seven, and Opus 2 set of six, along with some unpublished manuscripts in a library in Finland. These works have attracted eminent chamber groups, and there are numerous top shelf performances against which I tested this new release by La Reveuse. The Naxos recordings with John Holloway on his larger than life baroque violin are ravishing displays of the stylus phantasticus. Equally well performed are the Challenge recordings, which are part of Ton Koopman’s collected Buxtehude. Even with the sparkling playing of Paolo Pandolfo these discs cannot compete with the new recordings owing to a dry and brittle harpsichord sound. Rachel Barton Pine, with Trio Settecento, puts her famous instrument on display in superb performances of this music (Cedille) in a group that dismisses the lute from the continuo. There are many more.

La Reveuse, a French group that combines interests in Early Music research and performance with collaborations with other artistic disciplines, notably theater, has assembled an intriguing recital that includes three Buxtehude sonatas from the Uppsala manuscripts, one work from Opus 2 and two sonatas from contemporaries of the Lubeck capellmeister.

I was immediately struck with the florid inventiveness of the Sonata in A-minor. Breathless melodic lines, a busy counterpoint and ever shifting continuo textures overwhelm the ear. The instruments are well focused and separated.  Stephan Dudermel’s violinia is modestly beautiful but less prominent than Holloway’s Naxos performances. This allows for the distinguishing feature of these fine recordings: the affecting delicacy of the theorbo, harpsichord and positive organ. Never have I heard a chamber group which has achieved a balance like this. Not only does this bring out the rich complexity of the polyphony, it also saves the ear from aural exhaustion that sometimes attends the fiddle enthusiasm of the baroque composers such as Biber.

La Reveuse manages to highlight the mercurial lightness of this music. We are not in a dark and moldy organ loft but outside in a sun-dappled meadow, and how the feet of the smiling maidens fly! It is the North’s brilliant dream of the Mediterranean, so much better than the reality. The Sonata by Dietrich Becker is an artful two-voiced counterpoint which has some of Corelli’s gravitas and a drowsy Lento.  For a chaconne, it has the rare merit of not going on too long.

A sonata for Gamba by an anonymous composer shows the high level of amateur gamba playing in Lubeck. It is an engaging piece with a showy and long Passacaglia. The heart of the recording is the G-minor sonata from Opus 2, which distills the essence of Buxtehude. La Reveuse dramatically captures the shadows and light of this glorious music. Again, one admires the continuo which bolsters the flitting melodies of the violin, but on equal sonic terms.

This recording can be set alongside the best of Early Music performances of our time. Buxtehude will endure as something more than a Baltic Corelli, and his peers, likewise, might emerge to form a more complete picture of a Hanseatic cultural Renaissance of the 17th and 18th centuries. First rate and highly recommended.

TrackList: Sonata in a; DIETRICH BECKER: Sonata & suite; Anonymous viola da gamba sonata; Sonata No. 3 Op 2; Sonata in D major; Sonata in B major

—Fritz Balwit

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