Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Praeludium to Bach?

The German Baroque is a rich and fascinating period. Between its greatest early voice, Schütz, and its final mighty flowering with Bach and Handel, the period offers listeners a multitude of fine composers. One such is Nicolaus Bruhns (1665-1697).

Bruhns was as short-lived as his great English contemporary, Purcell, and has suffered the posthumous misfortune of having most of his works lost. There are few than twenty surviving pieces - but what pieces! 

A pupil of Buxtehude whose works were known to Bach, Bruhns stands as one of the most interesting voices of the stylus fantasticus - a style of organ music where fantasy and flamboyance went hand in hand. Only five organ pieces remain - four Praeludiums and a chorale fantasia. The most impressive of the former is the Praeludium in E minor, which begins with an introduction teeming with invention - grand gestures, extrovert figuration, dramatic pauses, chromaticism - before switching to a fugue on a strikingly chromatic theme. The quality and harmonic daring of this and the work's other fugue approaches Bach. There's more fantasy in the passage between the two fugues, including a passage where the music breaks into a dance and another where a solo violin (accompanied by the organ's pedal) seems to be improvising - a practise that Bruhns himself is said to have engaged in for real! The second fugue skips along jubilantly before a big, rhetorical finish. There's a second shorter Praeludium in E minor, which will strike a chord with those who know the early organ works of Bach. This is an excellent piece too, if not quite so extraordinary as its companion. Its fantasy-filled prelude contains some likeable echo effects and its fugue is masterly. The Praeludium in G minor is a little more ordinary but the Praeludium in G major is first-rate, with its toccata-like introduction and its festive-sounding fugue. The chorale fantasia on Nun komm der Heiden Heiland is a beautiful work, presenting the chorale melody before giving us three variations on it and then a final toccata-like flourish. The counterpoint is richly-imagined, even passing into five voices at one point. This is music to enrich the spirit. 

Bruhns's vocal works are less well known, but they don't deserve to be. His cantatas are closer to those of his teacher, Buxtehude, than to Bach and by 'cantata' we're not talking about the kind familiar from Bach where distinct movements with solo arias, choruses and chorales turn turns but rather of single-movement hybrid pieces (sometimes also called 'sacred concertos') with short sections for various combinations of voices and instruments. Variety is the spice of life in these works.

The opening sinfonia of Muss nicht der Mensch auf dieser Erden in stetem Streite sein will show you the standard we can expect from Bruhns here - even before the voices enter. It's a contrapuntal masterpiece surrounded by trumpet fanfares. A later fugal section (with voices and trumpets) is at least as good and is interrupted by a section for the voices and continuo alone that shows remarkable harmonic depth. Apparently, Bach admired this piece - as well he might. The Easter cantata Hemmt eure Trähnenflut has more such contrapuntal wizardry as well as some more aria-like passages that point to Bach and is, if anything even better. The alto aria takes the form of a passacaglia. I'm also highly taken with Wohl dem, der den Herren fürchtet. This begins with a lovely trio (including violins and continuo) that will perhaps remind some listeners of Purcell and there's a walking bass in the following high-flying soprano 'aria'. There's something of the old viol fantasy about the textures of the bass 'aria'. This is followed by another delightful trio with bass continuo, with the violins re-entering at the end to sustain the high voices' praise of peace with gently sonorous chords. A dancing fugal 'Amen' brings the cantata to a close. Ich liege und schlafe for four voices, strings, bassoon and continuo is a funeral cantata and strikes a suitably contemplative tone. It is gently beautiful throughout. In it, more than in the other pieces, I can still hear the benign ghost of old Schütz. As for Die Zeit meines Abschieds ist vorhanden, for five voices and instruments, this takes us through a variety of moods within its concise frame, from sadness to grandeur and vigour. It has a magical opening section that treats a couple of attractive themes contrapuntally, adding voices and instruments as it goes. Dramatic pauses, chromaticism and sudden gear changes add to the interest as the music flows on through its various short sections. Der Herr hat seinen Stuhl im Himmel bereitet is wonderful feel-good music, with dancing strings and strong melodic lines. Listen out for the various treatments of the phrase 'Lobet den Herrn', including a wonderful series of fanfare-like flourishes for both singer and strings. His Mein Herz ist bereit has a wonderful opening that recalls the violin sonatas of his contempory, Biber, and the following 'aria' has a catchy melody, its catchiness accentuated by its rhythms, and plenty of engaging word-painting. The delights just keep on coming with Bruhns.

Further listening:

O werter heil'ger Geist
Jauchzet dem Herren
De profundis
Paratum cor meum

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