An outstanding release (Buxtehude CD)


Scandinavian Cantatas, Dacapo Records

Not known for his vocal music, and never required to write any, this composer has a real flair for the essence of sacred text setting.

Danish composer Dietrich Buxtehude never held a position, including his one at St. Mary’s in Lubeck—for 35 years—that mandated the composition of any vocal music at all. Nevertheless, over 120 works of the genre issued from his pen in four languages in mostly sacred texts. His position as organist and work master at the church was supplemented by his appointment as administrator and treasurer of the church, making him almost as highly paid as the pastor. He was not responsible for the music of the Lutheran service, but instead wrote for the communion, vespers, or the late afternoon post-vespers concerts that he inaugurated.

His cantatas were a mixture of arias and concertos in one unit, always on sacred but not necessarily liturgical texts. It is striking to hear long passages of basically instrumental dialog to be followed by primarily aria-type declamations which have as their basis a concrete homophonic style (as opposed to the vast polyphonic contributions for chorus by both Bach and Handel). Even in the “concerto” areas where the instrumentals dominate there is not what we would consider true polyphonic music at play, as in the organ works (two included on this disc).

However, Buxtehude’s contrapuntal talents are aptly demonstrated when we get to the only example of the stile antico on this disc, his Short Mass, including only the Kyrie and Gloria, typical of this peculiar German Lutheran variant of the Mass. But here the composer hearkens back to the sixteenth century with a continuo-only accompaniment and plenty of imitative counterpoint that ranks with the best of what we find in the late medieval period in the colder north European countries.

This is an outstanding release, stirred to great heights by the ever-energetic Paul Hillier and his marvelous Theater, recorded in vivid and comforting hi-res surround sound at the church of St. Mary’s in Helsingor. The music will surprise you, and you might come to the conclusion that J.S. Bach, who walked a great distance to hear Buxtehude’s legendary organ playing, might have been as interested in some other aspects of his art as well. At least this wonderful disc points to that possibility.

5 stars

Steven Ritter