Buxtehude: Abendmusiken

Ensemble Masques, Olivier Fortin; Vox Luminis, Lionel Menier
85:17
Alpha Classics ALPHA 287
BuxWV10, 34, 41, 60, 62, 255, 267, 272

This latest CD from Vox Luminis indicates the attractiveness of their style. The winsome group Ensemble Masques directed by Olivier Fortin shares the disc’s title billing on equal term with Lionel Meunier and Vox Luminis: they are partners, not accompanists. This indicates how the quality of ensemble for which Vox Luminis is so justly renowned is achieved: there are no maestros or prima donnas in these performances, only first-rate musicians whose supreme gift is the ability to listen – to listen to each other and to the composer. It is Buxtehude who is centre stage.

This CD has five vocal works interspersed with three trio sonatas for slightly unusual combinations of instruments and illustrates the variety of Buxtehude’s music that might have been heard at his Abendmusiken – the evening concerts which he established in the Marienkirche in Lübeck, held in the extended season of Advent.

The vocal works range from a substantial setting of Gott hilf mir, a section of Psalm 69 (perhaps the model for J. S. Bach’s Aus der Tiefe, BWV 131) via a simple evening prayer setting Befiehl dem Engel with its pre-echos of Bach’s BWV 150 to an extended cantata on the chorale, Jesu, meine Freude. Herzlich lieb hab ich dich  is a developed chorale setting while Jesu, meines Lebens Leben  is set as a ciacona after an instrumental sinfonia that includes a recorder that largely doubles the first violin as well as the five-part string group. These vocal pieces move from the arioso passages for single voice through small vocal ensembles to a ten-voice ensemble, letting us marvel at the quality and blendability of the individual voices, whether combined with strings of sustaining a single line.

In the instrumental sonatas, the texture of the gamba with the violin makes an interesting sonority when much of the music is in canonic imitation, especially in the extended ciacona-type movements as in the Bb trio’s opening section (track 16), preparing us for Jesu, meines Lebens Leben.

In these performances, the clarity of each line – vocal and instrumental – is beautifully balanced with the sonority of the whole sound. The feeling of the darkened, expectant church full of listeners waiting for the revelation, for deliverance from the present gloom is palpable. As they attend to each others lines, the singers and players alike manage to convey a palpable sense of urgency. There are the underlying models for what was to become some of J. S. Bach’s earliest cantatas, but I was chiefly struck by how pervasive the ciacona model is – vocally and instrumentally – where the quiet insistence on the repeated motif in the bass line forms the bedrock for the ever more frenetic and insistent lines above. How powerful this is, and how much of the fine music of this period depends on this. I was sent back not only to Johann Christoph Bach’s Meine Freundin, du bist schön  from the Altbachisches Archiv and to the concluding ciacona in BWV 150, Meine Tage in dem Leide  but also to Buxtehude’s ciaconas for the organ and to the great Passacaglia in C minor by Bach.

This is a fine, atmospheric CD and would serve as a splendid introduction to anyone who thinks of Buxtehude simply as the father or the North German school of organists. There is a wealth of choral music there, which many people hardly know and these are alpha class performances.

David Stancliffe

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