Dieterich Buxtehude, VII Suonate à doi, Violino & Violadagamba, con Cembalo, Opera prima. Sonatas 1, 2 and 3 (BuxWV 252-4). Edition Güntersberg G091, G092 and G093

These three sonatas for violin, bass viol and harpsichord, published in Hamburg around 1694, are part of his first set of seven sonatas. A second set of seven, for the same instruments, was published as his opus 2, in 1696. In fact very little music was published by Buxtehude during his lifetime (hence the low opus numbers), and these sonatas represent a mature composer at the height of his powers.

Some of the 14 sonatas that make up these two sets were published half a century ago by Bärenreiter, and they also exist in score in the old (and occasionally slightly variant) complete edition. For the current edition, however, the editiors, Günter und Leonore von Zadow, have relied on the original printed version (which took the form of partbooks for the violin, the gamba and harpsichord). The violin part is lively and idiomatic, but, typically for the instrument at this period, does not go beyond C above the treble stave. The harpsichord part consists of just a figured bass-line, and although the instrument was named at the top of the original edition, the part could probably also be rendered effectively on a chamber organ. The bass viol part, however, is unmistakenly intended for that instrument alone. Most of the time it is a true counterpart to the violin, in trio-sonata configuration, moving with equal agility across a range of three octaves; occasionally it reaches down into the lower registers, as a bass instrument, but rarely stays with the continuo for long, preferring an independent role at the heart of this music. The effect is brilliant, and bass viol players have in these two sets some of the most moving and persuasive baroque chamber music ever conceived for the instrument. Each sonata is in a different key and follows its own internal structure: the very first one, for exemple, starts with a striking Vivace, suddenly breaks in a Lento with slow chromatic chords in the harpsichord breaking away from the static repeated notes of the violin and gamba, leading into a boisterous Allegro, followed by a lyrical Adagio where the gamba and violin intertwine, an Andante, a Grave where the harmonic interest concentrates on the two strings, and finally a brilliant Presto. What contemporaries described as stylus phantasticus gives ample scope for expression and freedom for each player.

This new edition of the first three sonatas is eminently practical. A score assembles the original three lines in the form in which they were published, clearly marking any editorial additions or changes (for example, where the continuo part originally went into the alto clef, here changed to the bass clef for convenience). Separate parts for the violin and gamba are very clearly presented, with pratical page turns and sparing use of editorial cues where these are helpful; the gamba part uses only bass and alto clefs (where the original had an occasioal tenor clef, this has been changed but marked as such). The continuo player has three alternatives: playing from the original figured bass only; using the score where all three lines are presented as in the original; or using a realisation which retains the original figures whilst providing a tasteful and quite simple realisation suitable for a harpsichord (there is no need for a second gamba on the continuo). In short, a perfect edition of some of the finest chamber music of the late seventeenth century. The remaining sonatas in both sets are eagerly awaited.

Thomas Munck,
The Viol No 4, October 2006