Buxtehude: Complete Harpsichord Music / Simone Stella

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BUXTEHUDE Complete Harpsichord Music Simone Stella (hpd) BRILLIANT 94312 (4 CDs: 279:10)

Decisions, decisions. Does one go with the four-CD set here on Brilliant, played with the proper style by Simone Stella, or the competing set—issued piecemeal, as is their wont—on Naxos by Lars Ulrik Mortensen? Although this set is titled Complete Harpsichord Music, it does not include the aria “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern,” BuxWV 223; the Prelude in G, BuxWV 162; or the Fugue in B?, BuxWV 176, which are in the Mortensen set. That’s because they were originally written for organ, so in a sense Stella is purer.

Be that as it may, there is a great deal to admire here. There’s no question that Stella has the proper Buxtehude style, which is to play with irregular meter and with the parts of both hands slightly out-of-synch much of the time, which creates a weird tension. He also dances and sparkles in several of the allemandes, particularly the one that begins the partida Auf meinen lieben Gott.

Stella is also excellent in the long sets of variations, given the deceiving titles of “arias,” in BuxWV 247 (“More Palatino”), BuxWV 246 (no title), and the more famous “La Capricciosa” (BuxWV 250), an astounding work for its time, a set of 32 variations that can rival some of Bach’s and Mozart’s in originality and complexity. I also love Stella’s daring in occasionally altering the sound of his harpsichord with the damper pedal, which makes the instrument sound very much like a lute. Of course, Mortensen is also a highly skilled harpsichordist, so in many ways I find their work complementary.

One online review of Buxtehude’s keyboard music claims that he wrote “both pedaliter and manualiter works,” but that his most famous pieces are the “praeludia and toccatas in the stylus phantasticus, which intermingles highly unpredictable free sections in virtuosic and idiomatic keyboard styles with more structured fugal sections.” How about that? I suppose this is how you write when you’re trying to impress your college professor, but I doubt whether any readers who are not professional musicians even know what a pedaliter or a manualiter is. (These terms actually refer to the organ, not the harpsichord, “manualiter” meaning works played only using the manuals and not the pedals.) I’m more interested in whether or not the music is creative, surprising, well crafted, and conveys some meaning to the listener. Buxtehude fulfills all those criteria for me, so that is why I love his pieces. Another feature of his work that I admire: There almost never seems to be even one superfluous note in anything he wrote. And yes, I can describe technically what’s going on in the music—how the notes for both hands contrast with or complement one another—without needing to break down a manualiter. I also prefer the description that one of my Fanfare colleagues gave of Buxtehude’s music when he called it “Bach in the raw.” That conveys far more to me than the stylus phantasticus in the pedaliter. How about you?

Perhaps the strongest element in Stella’s favor is the price. On ArkivMusic’s website, Brilliant is selling this boxed set for $19.99, while Mortensen’s single discs sell for $9.99 apiece. As for me, I give a very slight edge to Mortensen in performance quality, but not enough to warrant double the price. I say go for this one.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: BRI94312

  • UPC: 5028421943121

  • Label: Brilliant Classics

  • Composer: Dietrich Buxtehude

  • Performer: Simone Stella