In the old Hanseatic city of Lübeck, Germany, Dietrich Buxtehude (1637–1707) garnered fame as one of the premier organists of his day. In 1703, George Frideric Handel and Johann Mattheson ventured to Lübeck to pay homage to the master; two years later, the twenty-year-old J. S. Bach walked nearly 250 miles to hear Buxtehude play, and he risked his organ post at Arnstadt by lingering in Lübeck several months longer than agreed upon with his employers.

In his post at the prestigious Marienkirche, Buxtehude did write a great deal of organ music, and we can be thankful that much of it survives to this day. Yet Buxtehude was also celebrated by his peers for his chamber music, which he composed for his ensemble in Lübeck and for his regular visits to play with Johann Reincken and others in Hamburg. The writing—while admittedly not as developed as his organ music—is astute, highly contrapuntal, and technically demanding, and is paradigmatic of the North German stylus phantasticus. As things stand today, Buxtehude’s non-organ oeuvre is almost exclusively performed by “historically informed performance” (“HIP”) groups. On March 3, 2022, one such ensemble, New York City’s The Art of Early Keyboard (ARTEK), held a recital of these compositions at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on the Upper West Side. The recital program consisted of four chamber trios, three solo vocal pieces, and a suite for keyboard.

The first trio sonata performed—BuxWV 272—seemed to find the musicians technically befuddled. The violinist, Cynthia Freivogel, is clearly a masterly musician; her playing here was, however, dynamically unbalanced in relation to the rest of the ensemble for much of this trio. Buxtehude seems to have been an avid fan of the viola da gamba, writing delightfully conversational parts for the instrument in these trios. In this first trio, however, the gambist, Arnie Tanimoto, made several inelegant bow strokes in runs that ended on lower notes, creating a few abrupt, (presumably) unintended crescendi. In lieu of a harpsichord, the director Gwendolyn Toth chose to play on a lautenwerk (more on this below), an early keyboard instrument, which could hardly be heard in the continuo throughout most of the recital. Thankfully, Adam Cockerham provided a reliably audible—and tastefully played—continuo with his theorbo (a long-necked member of the lute family).

Most of the technical frustrations in the performance of the first trio should be written up as aberrations. In the remaining trios—BuxWV 260, 253, and 263—the musicians excelled in their playing. Freivogel played with much more dynamic variation, bringing the layered quality of these works to life as she traded off themes with the viola da gamba. Freivogel’s mastery of her instrument was made particularly clear during the virtuosic Recitativo of BuxWV 263. Tanimoto’s playing was also markedly more elegant as well, and his bow work more controlled, particularly important in the lively Vivace of BuxWV 253 and Presto of BuxWV 263.

The three vocal works of the evening were sung by the countertenor Eric Brenner. (One will sometimes hear these pieces sung by women—perhaps because they are written for “soprano” voice—but, in fact, the strict Lutherans of Lübeck forbade female vocalists from public performance.) In the first two works, “Gen Himmel zu dem Vater mein” (BuxWV 32) and “Singet dem Herrn” (BuxWV 98), Brenner’s artful singing and tasteful ornamentation were overpowered by the ensemble several times. This was most unfortunate, but speaks more to the ensemble’s lack of attention to the vocalist than to the talent of the singer himself. In “O dulcis Jesu” (BuxWV 83), Brenner managed the vocal strength necessary to be heard above the ensemble, and did so without losing any of the pleasantness of his voice. In fact, the strong delivery of this last piece lent an air of emotional conviction that suited the text of the work.

Toth’s performance of the keyboard suite (BuxWV 240) has left me in a critical bind. On the one hand, her decision to change registrations (switching where the plectra pluck along the length of the instrument’s strings, allowing for different tones and colorations) struck me as both historically sensitive and tastefully applied. This was particularly the case with the simple, rounded tone accomplished by her registration on the Sarabande, giving the appropriate illusion of a piano dynamic for this slow movement. With the possible exception of the Allemande—which the Germans seem to have played faster than the French—her tempi were also well-chosen. On the other hand, while one usually has to complain of too much ornamentation, Toth’s decision to play with so little of it made me doubtful of her playerly bon goût.

At the risk of being captious, I must admit that I was also frustrated by Toth’s decision to play on a lautenwerk rather than a harpsichord. The lautenwerk is functionally similar to a harpsichord, but slightly smaller and with leather-plucked gut strings. While J. S. Bach is known to have been a devotee of the instrument, no intact examples survived into the modern era, and contemporary examples such as Toth’s are hypothetical reconstructions. Proponents of the instrument claim to prefer its “mellow” sound, but in the continuo of a chamber ensemble it simply cannot hold its own with the other instruments. Furthermore, Buxtehude’s published trio sonatas specify instrumentation for harpsichord. Without further evidence, I am not sure why, especially in a HIP environment, the lautenwerk would be chosen as part of the continuo or as a solo instrument in a performance of Buxtehude’s works.

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