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Larger than life

ANN BOND examines the first of a new Buxtehude series

CD Review

I think one would have enjoyed meeting Buxtehude. There is a certain larger-than-life quality, a bursting-out-of-seams, in the music of this confident, competent Hanseatic citizen, who gave organ recitals before the Stock Exchange opened each Thursday, and had extra galleries built in the Marienkirche to enhance the serial evening concerts he organised. The 39 years he spent in Lubeck quite probably brought him more affectionate fame than was ever Bach's lot in Leipzig. Though both men bore responsible public office, they wore it differently; Buxtehude was, if you like, the Liszt to Bach's Brahms.

Dietrich Buxtehude - Harpsichord Music, Vol. 1. Copyright (c) 1999 dacapo, CopenhagenThis genial brilliance is excellently captured in Lars Ulrik Mortensen's recording of Buxtehude's keyboard music. Starting with a magnificent flourish, improvised around the chaste semibreve chord in the score, Mortensen plunges into the G major Toccata with fervour, and we are immediately caught up in a superb piece of keyboard rhetoric. Mortensen is one of those rare players who really understands the mainsprings of rubato, and his hastening and easing of the beat in response to the harmony of the unfolding piece is a joy to listen to. These toccatas - appropriate to either organ or harpsichord, but sounding splendid on the latter - were closely imitated by the young Bach, who learnt from them how to handle the baroque stylus phantasticus : and this is one of the instances where the pupil did not outshine the teacher.

Buxtehude was a northener through and through, embracing naturally his Lutheran heritage of chorale suite and variation, but he also brought a wider perspective to his work. France taught him the orthodox dance idioms, Italy the renaissance ground basses and the canzona. Italy also furnished the fuga alla giga, of which Buxtehude made an enthusiastic speciality. There are no fewer than five specimens of these rollicking fugues, some ingeniously crafted, on this disc. Humour, too, is never far from the surface: he can skid impishly into a slippery patch of chromaticism, then right himself with a nonchalant shake. Yet he can also command a fine, serious northern vein in the allemands and sarabandes.

Mortensen's ability to penetrate and characterise this music is evident throughout, and he is ably abetted by the Mandrup-Poulsen copy of a Ruckers harpsichord which he plays. The closeness of the recording, far from being a distraction, seems to add to the vivid tonal interest, and the mean-tone tuning further enriches the impact of the music, adding lustre to apparently commonplace passages and throwing the occasional chromaticism into dramatic relief. Not many players would risk ending a disc with a dashing canzona played only on a four-foot register, but player, builder and tuner emerge triumphantly from this searching test. An allemande played on the lute register is equally unusual and effective.

In short, I would recommend this record highly, even though it only contains 52 minutes of music. It wears excellently with repetition, and I look forward to the sequel.

Copyright © Ann Bond, August 11th 1999


Harpsichord Music, vol 1

Lars Ulrik Mortensen

Toccata in G major, BuxWV 165
Wie Schön Leuchtet der Morgenstern in G major, BuxWV 223
Suite in D minor, BuxWV 233
Fuga in B flat major, BuxWV 176
Suite in C major, BuxWV 226
Aria in A minor, BuxWV 249
Canzona in C major, BuxWV 166
Partita Auf meinen lieben Gott in E minor, BuxWV 179
Canzonetta in A minor, BuxWV 225

da capo 8.224116          DDD         51'58


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