Saturday, January 28, 2012

Album review: Buxtehude | Reinken

As I was perusing the instruments of one Monsieur Philippe Bolton in Vienna (see my earlier post on Resonanzen) I noticed a few CDs sitting by the recorders on his table. I thought that perhaps they were albums featuring his instruments, but it turned out that they actually featured his daughter, Florence Bolton, a viola da gamba player, with her group La Rêveuse. Always on the lookout for new and exciting ensembles to listen to, I asked Philippe to recommend one of the four albums on offer. What I ended up with, after a quick listen on his iPod, was an album featuring Buxtehude's three sonatas for two violins, gamba, and continuo, and Reinken's Hortus Musicus I and IV. I won't go into the group's (impressive) biography, because you can quite easily find that yourselves via a quick internet search. Or, if you're feeling lazy, you can click here.

Let me start by saying that I know little about Buxtehude, except that he was known as an incredible organist and wrote some beautiful cantatas, and I know even less about Reinken. Fortunately for me, the liner notes are very detailed! It turns out the two men, who were most likely of about the same age, were possibly the two greatest organists before the turn of the eighteenth century, and were also extremely close friends. Indeed, the concept for the album is based on a painting - part of which is displayed on the album's cover - in which Buxtehude plays the viol as Reinken accompanies on the harpsichord. It is likely this painting was based on a real event, as it is known that Reinken often received Buxtehude, who was based in Lübeck, at his home in Hamburg.

But I digress. I don't want to go into the historical details here (that's Wikipedia's job), but to tell you about the music! I ask that you remember here that I am not a music critic, but a performer of early music, so what I will give you here is my reaction as a performer. None of that ridiculous hoity-toity nonsense you'll find in the arts pages. So, here goes nothing.

It would take me a very, very long review to write something about every piece, so I will try to be a little more general, with a few specifics to demonstrate my points. Let's start with Reinken. The sonatas of Reinken's Hortus Musicus are written broadly in the French style, each with an opening Sonata reminiscent of the French Ouverture, and then broken into a number of typically French dance movements. All of these sonatas use the same movement structure: SonataAllemand, Courant, Saraband, and Gigue.

And the ensemble's treatment of these two sonatas is indeed very French, including their use of French ornamentation, inégale treatment of scale passages, and over-dotting in the opening movements. The justification for this treatment seems to be based solely on the French movement titles; at least, no additional justification is given in the liner notes. Personally, I like this interpretation very much. It creates a beautiful flow both within and between movements, a sense of grandeur in the opening sonatas, and a real sense of the dances in the other movements. I would be very interested to know, however, if there is any other historical reason for this type of treatment. I know there are plenty of scholars and performers out there who believe that even Bach's French-style movements, for example, should be treated in this way. But I would be interested to know if Hamburg, or Reinken himself, had any French connection, or if this was a style embraced by musicians in Hamburg at the time. If anyone has thoughts, please feel free to comment!

I do have a couple of criticisms of these performances, though. They lack space. It feels sometimes like the sound is full all the time, with no room to breathe - which, as a recorder player, I think is very important! The sound is gorgeous, to be sure, but sometimes I just wanted a bit more rhythmic definition. These are dance movements after all, and dancers need space in the music for rhythmic clarity. Having just played in a concert of French music in which this was constantly stressed (more on that later), it feels to me that the group chose beauty of sound over, for want of a better word, 'danciness'. This, of course, is their decision to make, and it can go either way, depending on what you want to emphasise. But it did end up with the allemandes and courants sounding remarkably alike, because there wasn't a clear recognition of where the steps in the dances would be.

That said, it's just beautiful music, beautifully played, and if you want your heart-strings pulled you should definitely give it a listen.

There are also three sonatas of Buxtehude on the album; for those who want the details, they're BuxWV 271, 266, and 269, as well as an arrangement of his chaconne BuxWV 159 for two organs. The strength of these interpretations is definitely in the slow movements. Buxtehude's adagios are perhaps not so deeply moving as Reinken's, at least in my humble opinion, but rather they have an exhilarating beauty about them, which the group add to with a wide palette of tone colours and incredibly dynamic ensemble, each player reacting to the actions of the others, creating some really thrilling harmonic movement out of potentially dull moments. Not that Buxtehude should ever be dull, but they really do know how to work with his material in the best possible way. There is still a mild sense of French style, but primarily the execution feels quite Italian, which makes sense; in the liner notes, they acknowledge that the diversity of style found both within these sonatas and within each movement is closely linked with the stylus phantasticus, and this approach is clear.

The diversity is definitely shown off to greater affect in the Buxtehude than the Reinken, each section and movement with its own clear and individual character. However, I do feel that some of the allegro movements could have done with a little more punch. On the whole, they just seem, for my taste, a little too "nice" - especially if we're really talking about the stylus phantasticus. They're still very enjoyable to listen to, but they just all felt a little too measured. The presto in the second sonata on the album just passed as a presto, but with its very clear Italian influence, it just felt like I ought to have been on the edge of my seat. I mean, it was quick, and it was more rhythmical than the Reinken, but still a little more bite wouldn't have hurt.

La Rêveuse do say that their specialty is finding the poetry in early music, and bringing out its rhetorical aspect. This they do brilliantly. It really feels like everything is being sung rather than played. And I know that these works were likely to have been written for use in church, and could therefore not be too "frivolous". But guys, the dances still need to be danced to! A bit of lightness and space, please - yes, I'm talking to you too, basso continuo!

The last sonata on the album feels the freest and most relaxed to me, and in general a lot more exciting. The soloists certainly take plenty of liberty in the three solo movements, but this is in keeping with the style. There do seem to be times, though, when they are speeding up in that wonderful, Italianate manner, ready to display their fantastic virtuosity in these harmonically rising patterns, but the tempo just seems to stop increasing to early, before I as the listener am really satisfied with their display of brilliance. This is a matter of taste, for sure, and maybe I have listened to Il Giardino Armonico and other such virtuosic Italian groups one too may times. But that also seems to be the style they are trying to emulate in some of these movements, and they just don't create the same level of tension. They do create some, of course, and for many it may seem like more than enough. Just not as much as I'm used to, perhaps.

Overall, this is a beautiful album, well presented, and very cohesive. You can listen from beginning to end, and feel that you have really been moved somewhere deep in your soul. You can just imagine being in a French baroque cathedral, revelling in the waves of sound washing over you, basking in the constant sense of tension and release. But don't expect all of the dance movements in the Reinken to make you want to dance (unless you really like slow-dancing - the sarabands are to die for), or the fast movements to get you on the edge of your seat - though the tension of the harmony might! The style presented is, for the most part, about sound rather than rhythm. Which is great - so long as you recognise that this is where the recording is coming from. They do have their moments though, which make for the occasional pleasant surprise.

This album is readily available; you can find it on iTunes, or order the CD from Amazon. And despite my criticisms, I would say the album is definitely, definitely worth listening to. As much as I would like a little more excitement at times (and there is perhaps a little more than I give it credit for), I really just can't get enough of that sound!

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