BUXTEHUDE: Trio Sonatas, Op. 2: in Bb, BuxWV 259; in D, BuxWV 260; in G min., BuxWV 261; in C min., BuxWV 262; in A, BuxWV 263; in E, BuxWV 264; in F, BuxWV 265 / Arcangelo: Sophie Gent, vln; Thomas Dunford, lute; Jonathan Manson, vla da gamba; Jonathan Cohen, hpd/dir / Alpha Classics 738
Among Baroque composers, Dietrich Buxtehude remains one of my favorites, in part because his music is emotionally affecting, unpredictable in its development and generally exciting. One critic, writing for either High Fidelity or Stereo Review back in the 1960s (I forget which), referred to him as “Bach in the raw,” and it is worth remembering that the young J.S. admired Buxtehude so much—particularly for his organ works—that he traveled 100 miles or so (on foot!) to go hear and meet him and talk shop.
These Trio Sonatas are lesser-heard Buxtehude, most of his more familiar works written for solo keyboard instruments (organ and harpsichord), and cantatas for voices and accompaniment. Despite their being ostensibly early music—the complete Trio Sonatas, 14 in all, are grouped into two sets of seven each and numbered Opp. 1 & 2, and they were written not in the 18th century but in the late 17th, when Bach was around 10 years old!—many of his familiar devices are already in place, among them his clever use of “falling chromatics” and sometimes ascending chromatics, a trick that Bach himself rarely used, and with that his “leaning” harmonies that almost but not quite distort the chord progression. He was also a master of the “quick change” in the midst of a theme statement or development, frequently and insolently shifting from major to minor and back again with the blink of an eye, and doing so at the most unexpected moments. Add to this the rhythmically irregular movement of the viola da gamba underneath, and you have a formula for music that still fascinates even as so many other Baroque composers of his time and later do not. Generally speaking, many of these Trio Sonatas are free-form fantasias written in a style that was called, in his day, “stylus fantasticus.” (As a personal sidelight, I really do wonder how much this music influenced C.P.E. Bach, whose symphonies and concerti written during his Berlin years exhibit many traits that are more in common with Buxtehude than with that of his father or his godfather Telemann.)
Arcangelo, a UK-based group that has a bit larger repertoire than most early-music groups—they perform music at least up through Beethoven—has two things going for them, a wonderful feel for the legato line of the music and an exceptionally warm sound. The former is especially important in the performance of Baroque music; during the early years of the historically-informed movement, Gustav Leonhardt had it but Nikolaus Harnoncourt didn’t, at least not at first. (Later, when Harnoncourt finally discovered the wonders of legato, he overdid it, often slowing down the music so much that it sometimes lost its excitement.) Christopher Hogwood had a so-so legato feel to his performances, but it wasn’t until John Eliot Gardiner came along in the 1980s that we had an early-music performer who, like Karl Richter among the early pioneers, knew how to balance a fine legato with crisp playing and good rhythmic movement.
In comparing Arcangelo to other groups who have recorded these works, they score for excitement over the London Baroque on Bis and considerably in terms of phrasing over the stodgy and unattractive readings by the Boston Museum Trio (Harmonia Mundi and Centaur), but I couldn’t escape the feeling that something was missing. I couldn’t put my finger on it until I started listening to the superb performances recorded a decade ago by Ton Koopman for the Challenge Classics label. Suddenly, I heard EVERYTHING: good legato, forward momentum, rhythmic lift and drive, and quicker tempi than any of the above. Thus I recommend that you seek those recordings out (they’re currently available on a 3-CD set with other sonatas by Buxtehude filling out the first disc). Koopman, by the way, is also the President of the Dietrich Buxtehude Society, so he obviously has a passion for this music and it shows in his performances. (Normally I don’t put much stock in Grammys or Grand Prix du Disques and the like, but I think Gramophone was entirely right to give this set an “Editor’s Choice” award when they first reviewed it.)
So, to recap, the recording under review here is good but not in the same universe as Koopman’s. I hate to be negative since Arcangelo obviously put a lot of work into these performances, but that’s the way the Buxtehude ball bounces.
—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley
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