Hans Davidsson

Dieterich Buxtehude and the Mean-Tone Organ, Volume 1

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This double-disc set offers a group of Buxtehude organ works, opening with the celebrated Praeludium in C major, BuxWV 137, performed on a magnificent Swedish organ tuned in so-called mean-tone tuning. The booklet, which contains a good deal of fascinating information about Buxtehude and about the role organs played in North Germany's mercantile society, might have addressed for general listeners exactly what mean-tone tuning is, but organists have a tendency to speak to their own kind with their recordings. Mean-tone tuning, in a word, is based on perfectly tuned major thirds rather than on the perfect fifths from which earlier tuning systems were mostly derived, and which gave birth to the circle-of-fifths theoretical concept that beginning musicians still learn today. It takes its name from the fact that the whole step in this system is defined as the mean between the two tones of a major third. The "advantage" of mean-tone tuning is that the big major chords of Buxtehude's music have an unusually pure, bright quality. The "disadvantages" are that 1) keys sound different from one another (the problem Bach's equal temperament sought to eliminate) and 2) the fifths are less than perfect to various degrees. The listener will also notice that some of the leading tones have a low-hanging quality, resting further from the tonic and seeming distinct from it rather than drawing toward it strongly. Scholars will have to decide whether organist Hans Davidsson's blanket conclusion that Buxtehude would have used an organ with this tuning, even though several pieces have to be transposed to avoid the delightfully named "wolf" intervals (bad fifths), is justified. But the average listener will find his renditions extremely interesting. The tuning introduces a high degree of contrast into Buxtehude's music that is absent from equal-temperament recordings -- the big pieces like the opening prelude seem luxuriant in their consonances, while the more meditative chorale-based short pieces have a correspondingly intense murky quality. And the relationship between Buxtehude and Bach, which the modern listener tends to think of as close, is somewhat redefined by this disc. The music here seems, more so than usual, to embody a kind of free drama that Bach discarded in favor of more rational procedures. The great Swedish organ is beautifully recorded, and the registrants and bellows treaders are not only credited but also shown in a photograph. This recording will be of interest to anyone whose attention has ever been snared by Buxtehude's monumental organ music.

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