Buxtehude: Vocal Works

W.A. Grieve-Smith

[June 2002.]

Dietrich BUXTEHUDE: Geistliche Kantaten. Cantus Cölln, Konrad Junghänel (cond.). Harmonia Mundi HMC 901629 (1997) [71:30].

Konrad Junghänel is best known here as an extremely accomplished lutenist. He is also a luthier, having constructed countless lutes, bandoras and citterns for many of Europe’s string-pluckers. On this CD he presents Buxtehude’s music in its chamber setting with one instrument or singer per part. It’s noteworthy that in Buxtehude’s time it was not unusual to include an aria sung to a sacred text in a concert of instrumental chamber music or play folksong variations in church on the organ. And there are quite a few contemporary pictures of well-dressed swells strolling in church with their dogs!

To dispel all blues and banish gray clouds, go directly to cut # 3: Nun danket alle Gott. Besides singers and cello with contrabass, there are duets between two trumpets and two cornets! (The cornet looks like a curved recorder, covered in leather, with finger holes and a brass mouthpiece. Along with the violin it was considered the instrument most like the human voice in flexibility.)

A map of the rest:

• Ich suchte des Nachts is a duet for tenor and bass, complete with fanfare for two oboes illustrating a passage from the Song of Songs.

• Starting with a Sinfonia, Fürwahr, er trug unsere Krankheit illustrates the prophecy of Jeremiah.

• Befiehl dem Engle, Daß er kommt is a charmingly simple and compact rendering of an Advent chorale tune.

• Herzlich lieb hab ich Dich, o Herr gets the large-scale treatment — a chorale concluding with a brilliant Amen.

• Gott hilf mir begins with an adagio Sinfonia leading into an extended bass solo.

These cantatas employ chamber forces as one might easily have heard in smaller chapels. All the voices are musically flexible and dramatic when called for, but never operatic in the 19th-century style. One is again impressed with Buxtehude’s sure-footed weaving of text, voices and instruments. A complete delight!


Dietrich BUXTEHUDE: 6 Cantatas. Orchestra Anima Eterna, Collegium Vocale, Ghent, Jos van Immerseel (cond.). Channel Classics CCS 7895-1 (1994) [65:30].

With an orchestra of 19 members and a corresponding number of singers, van Immerseel gives us a more traditional, choral-society treatment of Buxtehude’s vocal works, ably recorded in a relatively large space with Jared Sacks’ customized microphones. Highly recommended!

Two gems of Buxtehude’s genius are Jesu, meines Lebens Leben, a melting choral aria over an ostinato bass figure (track # 2) and Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin, Contrapuncti of elegiac simplicity written in 1671 for the funeral of superintendant Menno Henke of Lübeck, and performed three years later at the funeral of Buxtehude’s father, Hans Jenssen. It concludes with a dirge (Klaglied) possibly on a text by the composer himself.

Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott gives us a madrigalian elaboration on the chorale with alternating verses for soloists and full chorus.

With Führwahr, er trug unsere Krankheit we get a treatment worthy of a sacred opera, complete with tremolo violins reminiscent of Steve Reich. It’s one of the few works to survive in autograph and in score, as opposed to tabulature. (Tabulature was a carryover from lute writing, in which notes are represented by letters and numbers telling the player which key to push, instead of the actual pitch. It is much stingier with paper and space than a notated score.)

A grand chorale cantata, Herzlich Lieb hab ich dich, O Herr comprises three sections and concludes with a rousing Amen. Der Herr ist mit mir alternates strings and chorus, and the conclusion is a Chaconne, repeated 19 times for the Alleluia.


Dietrich BUXTEHUDE: Vocal Music, Vol. 1. Emma Kirkby (soprano), John Holloway, Manfredo Kraemer (violins), Jap ter Linden (viola da gamba), Lars Ulrik Mortensen (harpsichord and organ). dacapo 8.224062 (1996) [72:15].

“The divine Emma” makes a superb case for calling Buxtehude the German Purcell. They were active at the same time and adapted the Italo-French operatic style of Lully to local language and conditions. And both excelled at a heart-melting simplicity of vocal writing combined with spare but dancing, exuberant instrumental accompaniment.

Like Purcell’s Funeral Sentences for Queen Mary (and himself!) Buxtehude’s funeral music Fried- und freudenreiche Hinfahrt expresses profound grief with the simplest of means. The Contrapuncti are played on the organ and Miss Emma sings the Klaglied (lament) as a cantus firmus. Of the several renditions in my possession, this one rises to the top. If one has to go anyway, this is the best possible musical sendoff I can imagine.

Track # 4: Was mich auf dieser Welt betrübt is a strophic song that could easily be an Ayre from a Purcell stage production. It should be remembered that Buxtehude was a buddy of Jan Adam Reincken, Heinrich Scheidemann’s successor at the Catherinenkirche and a founder of the Hamburg Opera.

O fröliche Stunden, O fröliche Zeit is an exuberant Easter aria that also wouldn’t be out of place on the operatic stage. It concludes with a dazzlingly florid Alleluia. I don’t know if the ornaments are in the score or were contributed by Miss Emma, but the fit is perfect and the effect effortless — effortless for Kirkby, that is.

Equally stageworthy is O dulcis Jesu, where Miss Emma brings out the dramatic, love-song drama. Again, we’re back in an era when the sacred and secular were meaningless distinctions. Schaffe in mir, Gott presents a sacred concerto where the soloist and strings alternate with consummate musicality.

A chorale concerto, Gen Himmel zu dem Vater mein has the voice sing the chorale melody ornamented by instrumental variations similar to Buxtehude’s chamber sonatas. Kirkby really gets to cut loose with coloratura flourishes alternating with virtuoso solo violin passages in Singet dem herrn.

Like Buxtehude’s published chamber sonatas, Sicut Moses exaltavit serpentem starts with an instrumental Sinfonia. Then the voice enters with a quite florid aria, winding up on a rousing Amen. Over an instrumental Ciacona, Herr, wenn ich nur dich hab gives the voice a lilting, soaring part ending with a satisfying Alleluia.

It’s not at all surprising that Fanfare’s Brian Robins put this CD on his Want List for 1997. If you’ve ever thrilled to vocalisms of Purcell or Charpentier, you owe it to yourself to look into their Lübeck contemporary.


Dietrich BUXTEHUDE: Cantatas and sonatas with the viol. Ensemble Baroque de Limoges, Christophe Coin (cond.). Naïve Astrée E 8851 (2000) [66:16].

Christophe Coin is identified as a gambist with Jordi Savall and baroque cellist in Quatuor Mosaïques. Here he presents an omnium gatherum of Buxtehude’s music for chamber ensemble, vocal cantatas, solo harpsichord and solo organ.

Most successful are Sonatas 3 and 4 from Buxtehude’s Opus 1 (1693 / 4). These trio sonatas (violin, viola da gamba, harpsichord) are very similar to his friend Reincken’s Hortus Musicus. Short, sprightly movements dance with gut-string resonance.

Less so is the cantata Jubilate Domino, sung carefully but with audible difficulty by tenor Rodrigo del Pozo. The recorded balance favors the instruments, with the singer struggling to get heard. What should be joyfully jaunty becomes literal and labored.

Soprano Bénédicte Tauran has similar problems with the cantata Gen Himmel zu dem Vater mein and the funeral Klaglied: Muß der Tod auch entbinden, was kein Fall entbinden kann?

Harpsichordist Jan Willem Jansen lumbers through the Praeludium in G minor with insufficient flamboyance for the stylus phantasticus (improvisatory manner) flourishes. And to top it off, the harpsichord seems slightly remote and lacking the resonance we hear from the gamba. He does better at the Jürgen Ahrend organ of the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse — even with its seven-second reverb. It’s a modern, three-manual Baroque replica modeled on the organ of St Janskerk, Schiedam, which I believe was restored by Ahrend. Jansen plays the funeral Contrapuncti and walks through the Toccata in D minor, transcribed from D major for the organ’s mean-tone tuning.

I wish I could be more enthusiastic, but mine is not to act as cheerleader for any record company — no matter how adventurous they may be in bringing out rather obscure music.


Dietrich BUXTEHUDE: Deutsche Barok Kantaten (VII). Greta de Reyghere (soprano), James Bowman (countertenor), Ian Honeyman (tenor), Max van Egmond (bass); Ricercar Consort. Ricercar 240932 (1990) [73:16].

O clemens, o mitis, o coelestis Pater; An filius non est Dei; Mein Herz ist bereit; Drei Schöne Dinge sind; Quemadmodum desiderat cervus; Ich bin eine Blume zu Saron; Erbarm dich mein,O Herre Gott.

These consort-style cantatas share instrumentation, rhythms and alternation of voices with strings with the chamber sonatas Buxtehude published in 1696. (Those also recall Jan Adam Reincken’s sonatas published as Hortus Musicus.) Though the strings sing out spirited dance melodies, the parts for voices are a completely different story. The florid voice parts could easily be arias from an opera by Carissimi and require supremely skilled vocalists. Fortunately, our soloists deliver in spades, particularly emphasizing the dramatic qualities.

A nameless Fanfare reviewer apparently hates all countertenors, especially James Bowman, accusing him of “bleating like a goat.” Rest assured, on this CD Mr Bowman bleats nary a bleat! All the singers blend impeccably in ensemble and with the players. Special honors go to Greta de Reyghere, who sounds completely different from Emma Kirkby but sings out authoritatively with the same effortless skill.

Fortunately this superb CD is still available via, among others. It doesn’t get much better than this!


Dietrich BUXTEHUDE: Kantaten. Westfälische Kantorei, Wilhelm Ehmann (cond.); Kantorei Barmen-Gemarke, Helmut Kahlhöfer (cond.); Greifswalder Domchor, Bach-Orchester Berlin, Hans Pflugbeil (cond.). Cantate-Musicaphon C 57601 (1959, 1960, 1967) [59:54].

Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme; Jesu, meine Freude; Cantate Domino; Lauda Sion Salvatorem; Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin; Befiehl dem Engel, daß er komm.

I miss the honeybear logo on the original Bärenreiter-Verlag 10-inch LPs (also released here on the Cantate label). The Westfälische Kantorei is probably best remembered for their pioneering recordings of the choral music of Heinrich Schütz, which seem to be still available on Cantate CDs.

After the initial shock of hearing modern strings and brass, you can settle in to enjoy superb choral singing from all three German groups. (More than one singer per part, but the Mormon Tabernacle Choir it’s not.) And the flutey positiv-organ continuo is well integrated and suitably Baroque. The least successful is Mit Fried und Freud, because the full choir sings the chorale in a way that overpowers the polyphony in the string writing. I would certainly try to catch this CD before it vaporizes into the limbo of NLA (no longer available).

A Latinist note: As a retired Latinist surrounded by linguistics PhDs, I couldn’t overlook that all the Latin texts of Buxtehude are pronounced like Eye-talian, whether the singers be German, Belgian or English. This is a figment of 20th-century historicity that the Brits did not adopt until after World War II.

I recall a learned BBC transmission about “Dee Sivididdidy Dee-eye by Sinawstin.” I was saved by the announcer at the end saying, “Or in the modern pronunciation: ‘De Civitate Dei by Saint Augustine.’”

How did they pronounce Latin in Buxtehude’s day? Like German, of course! On some older recordings you’ll hear “dona nobis patzem” or “Zanctus.” And the Brits of Tudor times pronounced Latin like the English of the day (similar to modern Irish).

I feel that if you’re going to the trouble to render early music with viols and male-voice choirs, you should pronounce it accordingly. It definitely colors the sound quality, whether you know Latin (or German) or not.

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