Late in 1705, a 20 year-old Johann Sebastian Bach made a pilgrimage on foot to Lubeck to hear the resident organist of the Marienkirche for himself...even today it sometimes seems as though Dietrich Buxtehude is still remembered more for Bach's visit than in his own right as a composer.
Buxtehude was doubly unfortunate in a way; historic accounts of Bach's visit reinforced the 18th century view that Buxtehude was first and foremost a composer of keyboard music, and that his worth is best appreciated through Bach's organ works. So why spend time getting to know his organ music when Bach's is so much better?
Thanks to the early music movement and the curiosity of certain record companies, these misapprehensions can be put behind us and this new Chandos disc of Sacred Cantatas by Buxtehude would be an excellent place to rethink any prejudices.
It's not a huge stretch to hear how Bach's extraordinary series of sacred cantatas could have come from such precursors; indeed there's a shock of recognition when you reach the last piece, Buxtehude's setting of the Lutheran chorale Jesu, meine Freude, and a melody so familiar from Bach's St Matthew Passion. Like Bach, Buxtehude often borrowed texts from more than one source for his cantatas, and we can also hear in his cantatas the transition from the early 17th century practice of alternating violins and voices, to using them together in much-enriched textures favoured by Bach in his sacred works.
As presented here, there's an essential simplicity about Buxtehude's cantatas: understated, elegant, and all the more beautiful for it. If there aren't quite the unforgettable melodies of Bach at his best, the settings are still sympathetic with some lovely illustrative touches left to the violins, whose straight, almost reedy tone works really well alongside the crystal-clear sopranos of Emma Kirkby and Suzie LeBlanc. Bass Peter Harvey is also beautifully balanced against the instruments, and if his solo contributions linger less long in the mind, it's the siren voices of the sopranos intertwining above him that are to blame: such a seductive sound.
Several of these Sacred Cantatas by Buxtehude aren't otherwise available, and if you'd like to put some flesh on the bare bones of the man admired, and eclipsed, by Bach, then I can't currently think of a nicer way of doing it.
Like This? Try These:
Pergolesi: Marian Vespers
A Venetian Christmas (Gabrieli Consort)
Bach: Toccatas (Angela Hewitt)