Danish-German composer Dietrich Buxtehude has an extensive output of vocal music in addition to his far better known canon of organ music. The vocal music is more obscure in that it is such a mixed bag. The oratorios he wrote have gone lost, many pieces relate directly to the organ music in a way that is difficult to divine now and some of the sacred concertos he composed are less than compelling, written for afternoon lunch concerts and not meant as "serious" music. In Challenge Classics' Dieterich Buxtehude: Opera Omnia V: Vocal Works 2, Ton Koopman pulls together some odds and ends found littered among Buxtehude's vocal output, dusts them off, and successfully mounts a program that both represents Buxtehude's vocal music to its best advantage and a pleasing and informative listen as well.
The opening work, Benedicam Dominum, BuxWV113, required the most editorial invention of the 20 works on this two-disc set; Koopman has replaced the missing soprano part in the chorus and he and timpanist Luuk Nagtegaal have worked out missing timpani parts. What results is a glorious and exciting Psalm concerto that evokes the magisterial sweep of a typical oratorio, music that we cannot otherwise hear from Buxtehude. There are vestiges of this grand style here and there in some of the succeeding pieces, such as the attributed Magnificat anima mea, BuxWVAnh.1, and the Missa Brevis, BuxWV114, the only purely liturgical works in Buxtehude's output. As there is no other correspondence for this kind of composition in Buxtehude's work list and, for him, no known professional need to address in writing such music, such pieces are considered of doubtful authenticity. If there is any rightful correspondence between these works and Buxtehude, Koopman finds it here through his dedicated, dignified, and serious delivery of the non-liturgical works for which Buxtehude is known. In addition to the liturgical works, there are pieces drawn from other genres: chorale concertos; cantatas; the chaconne "Liebster meine Seele Saget," BuxWV70; two solo arias; and two canons, the second of which, "Canon duplex per augmentationem," BuxWV 123, is textless and played here on instruments.
One aspect of these Koopman recordings is that, as opposed to the Baroque pitch of A=412 observed in some quarters, Koopman utilizes a high "choral" pitch of A=465 throughout, 25 cents higher than the modern standard of A=440. This must have been murder on his singers, but if so, they do not show it -- Klaus Mertens and Bettina Pahn breeze through Buxtehude's cheerful cantata "Drei Schöne Dinge sind" as though it is no big deal, high notes and all, and sometimes the pitches sound quite high for the sopranos. The soloists, Amsterdam Baroque Choir, orchestra, and continuo players all down to Koopman's own organ playing acquit themselves well in every measure of this music, and scholar Christoph Wolff's notes are in every way informative and helpful in understanding its proper context. Just about the only way in which Challenge Classics' Dieterich Buxtehude: Opera Omnia V: Vocal Works 2 doesn't decisively deliver is whether as a whole Buxtehude's vocal music is really worth reviving. While certain pieces, particularly the Benedicam Dominum, do come across as something unusual and special, there are still long passages of untroubled and invariably joyous music that does not wear particularly well, except to wear out its welcome through its unceasingly ingratiatory milieu. This aspect of Buxtehude's vocal music might not dissuade all of his potential listeners, and if anyone has the means to deliver it at the zenith of its potential, then Ton Koopman is the man.