BUXTEHUDE Opera Omnia XVII
This is the seventh volume, no less, of vocal music in Ton Koopman’s Buxtehude complete works cycle, and the fifth to be a double-pack. But it is not just for its scale that this is turning into a major project. Buxtehude has struggled to escape the status of ‘forerunner of Bach’, and even then it has mostly been his organ works that people have had in mind, but the music emerging in this series shows that his sacred vocal works (over 120, of which only Membra Jesu nostri has become at all well known) must be taken into consideration too. They do not sound like Bach – too much of their own distinct 17th-century personality for that – but the richness with which they harness vocal and instrumental resources (one piece demands six bass viols!) also shows just what a tradition of quality Bach was heir to.
The 18 works here range from variation settings for solo voice of chorale verses, to straightforward treatments of poetic texts, to larger multi-sectional ‘concertos’ that you are tempted to call cantatas, and each seems content to follow a course dictated by its own expressive needs. Not everything is equally inspired but there are numerous wonders. The grief-laden Klag-Lied for the composer’s father is among them, squeezed out by countertenor Maarten Engeltjes at a disarmingly high pitch (the one ‘originally intended’, says Koopman, without explaining why), while others include the joyous swing of All solch dein Güt’ wir preisen, the chromatic throbbing of Fürwahr, er trug unsere Krankheit, the expansive richness of Nimm von uns, Herr and the laughing violins of Ich sprach in meinem Herzen.
Unfortunately, the performances, while clearly made with love, seem to me not ideally set up to realise the music’s beauties as fully as they might. The sound is close and clumpy, with continuo instruments over-prominent and the singers failing to achieve the kind of ease and warming blend that could make Buxtehude’s sound world truly irresistible. For that – and a more manageable taster of the composer’s sacred music – try the Purcell Quartet with starrier singers (Chandos, 7/03). For the completist, however, this is still a valuable volume.