April 03, 2008

(++++) 17th-CENTURY GEMS

Buxtehude: Harpsichord Music, Volume 1—Toccata in G Major; Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern; Suite in D minor; Fuga in B flat major; Suite in C major; Aria in A minor; Canzona in C major; Partita: Auf meinem lieben Gott; Canzonetta in A minor. Lars Ulrik Mortensen, harpsichord. Naxos. $8.99.

Purcell: Theatre Music, Volume 1—Amphitryon, or the Two Sosias; Sir Barnaby Whigg; The Gordian Knot Unty’d; Circe. Aradia Ensemble conducted by Kevin Mallon. Naxos. $8.99.

      The rediscovery of classical music from the 19th century is well under way, and some less-known 18th-century works are now being heard once again as well. But the 17th century, during which Western classical music attained many of the forms that it still uses, has been less thoroughly explored. That makes these two CDs, each the start of a series, most welcome. The fact that the performances are so good makes the CDs more welcome still.

      The Buxtehude disc is full of surprises. This is a composer thought of as stodgy and associated with the organ and church music. And yes, a few of the works here have church-related origins. But most of this music shows a more personal side of Buxtehude than listeners are likely to have experienced before – and demands considerable keyboard virtuosity, which Larks Ulrik Mortensen supplies with enthusiasm that borders on overdoing it (the opening of the first work on the CD, the Toccata in G major, really makes you sit up and take notice). The two Suites here are multi-movement works, each starting with an Allemande that represents the heart of the piece, followed by slighter dance movements. The four-movement Partita, superficially similar, actually combines multiple forms: dance suite, variations and chorale. Probably intended for the organ – the instrument to be played was rarely specified in the mid-17th century – the work sounds quite grand on harpsichord. The other multi-part work here, the Aria, is a set of three variations on a saraband. The type of writing within these works varies quite widely. The opening Allemande d’Amour of the Suite in D minor, for example, has the harpsichord sounding like a lute – the movement uses a technique called style brisé, originally adapted from lute music by French performers. Buxtehude shows thorough mastery of all the forms known in his time, with the single-movement works focused especially tightly. The Toccata in G major and Canzonetta in A minor are virtuoso showpieces of very different types, the former bold and bright, the latter rapid, mostly quiet, and emphasizing the harpsichord’s characteristic plucking sounds. As for the other works, Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern is a chorale fantasy, the Canzona in C major incorporates both a fugue and a gigue, and the Fuga in B flat major shows Buxtehude’s easy handling of this form – perhaps one of the things that interested Bach when the younger composer made his famous trip to visit Buxtehude in 1705. This CD was originally released in 1998. Hopefully Naxos’ further releases or re-releases in this series will be of equally high quality.

      Henry Purcell’s theatre music is more often played than Buxtehude’s music for harpsichord, but Purcell’s theatre works – written mostly in the last five years of his short life – are rarely heard in the vocal-and-instrumental combinations for which they were originally written. That is how they are performed on the new CD featuring the Aradia Ensemble, a vocal and instrumental group directed by its concertmaster, Kevin Mallon, who also made the performing editions used here. Purcell’s music sounds quite exhilarating on this CD, exploring settings from the amorous to the serious. Amphitryon was a comedy by John Dryden, who much admired Purcell and collaborated with him several times. Characteristic dances – saraband, hornpipe, Scotch Tune, bourée, air and minuet – are interspersed among soprano arias and an earthy pastoral dialogue between a shepherd and his beloved. Sir Barnaby Whigg was also a comedy, but Purcell wrote only one piece for it: a sea song for tenor and bass that makes one wish he had composed more for this play. The Gordian Knot Unty’d was yet another comedy; for this one, Purcell wrote only instrumental airs and dances, which the Aradia Ensemble performs as a sort of mini-suite. Circe, in contrast, was a tragedy, and here Purcell provided vocal and instrumental music for a scene in which the enchantress of the title invokes Pluto to appear from his underworld domain. The vocal forces called for here are more varied than in the comedic songs: soprano, alto, countertenor, tenor and bass. And the music is quite dramatic within the context of its age – highly effective as long as listeners do not expect the sort of fireworks that would accompany a similar scene 100 years or so later. The performers are well immersed in the techniques of Purcell’s time, presenting his music with enthusiasm that remains infectious more than three centuries after these works were first heard.

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