Saturday, May 31, 2008

Two More of Naxos's Buxtehude Cycle

Buxtehude: Organ Works, Volume 3
Wolfgang Rübsam, organ
John Brombaugh organ, Central Lutheran Church, Eugene OR (1976)
Naxos 8.555991

Buxtehude: Organ Works, Volume 4
Craig Cramer, organ
Paul Fritts organ, Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma WA (1999)
Naxos 8.557195


Here are two more from Naxos's ongoing cycle of Buxtehude's organ works. I've been acquiring the discs rather in inverse order, starting with Julia Brown's fabulous later releases, Volumes 5-7, recorded on the magnificent Martin Pasi organ at St. Cecelia's Cathedral in Omaha. Now we have the two releases prior to Dr. Brown's involvement, Volumes 3 and 4, recorded by two different organists on yet two different organs. I'm always of two minds about this releasing of a composer's complete works played by several interpreters: on the one hand, it introduces a variable into the survey, which can be distracting to a new or fussy listener; but on the other, it ensures the whole cycle gets completed, and Naxos has been quite inspired in its choices. (Though for my money, I'd be very happy to have the whole cycle by Julia Brown on that Pasi organ!)

Volume 3 is from native German, and former teacher at Northwestern University outside Chicago, Wolfgang Rübsam. Mr Rübsam happens to have acted as producer for the other volumes in this set--as well as quite a number of other organ recordings from Naxos--and many of the performers on these discs have studied with him, including Julia Brown. Based on her glorious performances and a really excellent set of the six organ sonatas of Felix Mendelssohn by another student, one Stephen Tharp, Mr. Rübsam's involvement seems entirely welcome in any capacity. Rübsam himself released a complete Buxtehude cycle in the early '80s on the Bellaphon label, as well as Bach's complete organ output for Naxos (among many other releases).

His playing is characterized by extreme liveliness and virtuosity with a pointedly non-metronomic pulse. This makes for vibrant interpretations, reminding me at times of Glenn Gould, except that Rübsam is more concerned with authenticity than Gould was. Parts of his Bach are among my favorites, though often I feel aware of the artist as well as the composer, which is perhaps not to everyone's taste (in this he is like Gould or Horowitz; there are two geniuses in the room). But he's damn persuasive with his approach, and whatever I think going in he almost always wins me over. To my ear, his quite flexible time seems to work better with Buxtehude than with Bach, and this particular Buxtehude disc really comes alive under his touch.

His instrument of choice is a 1976 John Brombaugh instrument from Central Lutheran Church in Eugene, OR. It has a fairly mild non-equal temperament and makes a very appropriate and pleasing sound. This is really excellent Buxtehude.

Volume 4 comes from Craig Cramer, the Professor of Organ at Notre Dame University. As with Julia Brown, I fancy I hear some of Rübsam's irrepressibility and exuberance in Mr. Cramer's playing (the little devil sitting on the organist's shoulder saying "let yourself go a little!"), though perhaps turned down a notch or two. But if his approach is slightly less adventurous, this is still quite lively playing, and Mr. Cramer is solidly in control. His disc contains mostly chorale treatments, with a couple of Buxtehude's multipartite Preludes / Toccatas mixed in, and it's a wonderful disc.

The instrument is the 1998 Paul Fritts organ at Pacific Lutheran University, the same organ we've heard in George Ritchie's Bach cycle and the Joan Lippincott recording of Bach Preludes and Fugues (reviewed below). Again, it's a first-rate organ for the repertoire, and the recording quality is everything we've come to expect from Naxos.

Though their approaches are not precisely the same, they are both eminently worthy of the repertoire, and Naxos has done as good a job of pairing here as we have a right to expect. With Julia Brown's volumes, this shapes up as a cycle to have.

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