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Dietrich BUXTEHUDE (1637-1707): Membra Jesu nostri (BuxWV 75)

La Petite Bande
Dir: Sigiswald Kuijken

rec: Nov 10 - 12, 2010, St Truiden, Begijnhofkerk
Accent - ACC 24243 (© 2012) (65'13")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

Fried- und Freudenreiche Hinfahrt (BuxWV 76)af; Membra Jesu nostri (BuxWV 75)abcde

Ann-Kathrin Schencka, Marie Kuijkenb, soprano; Gunther Vandeven, altoc; Jens Weber, tenord; Fulvio Bettinie, Jens Hamannf, bass
Ann Cnop, Annelies Decock, violin; Kaori Uemura, discant viol; Thomas Baeté, alto viol; Masanobu Tokura, Marleen Thiers, bass viol; Sigiswald Kuijken, violone; Benjamin Alard, organ

Some pieces of classical music have a kind of cult status. As far as the repertoire for Passiontide is concerned, Bach's St Matthew Passion and Pergolesi's Stabat mater belong to this category. The cantata cycle Membra Jesu nostri will probably never make it to that level of popularity, mainly because of the limited role of instruments and the lack of extended solo parts. Even so, the number of recordings is considerable, and the list is still growing. On this site you will find reviews of various performances from recent years. These contain more information about the music.

Here I confine myself to some aspects which are relevant in regard to the performance practice. We don't know for sure for which occasion Buxtehude has composed the Membra Jesu nostri. The use of a Latin text and in particular its mystic character makes it rather unlikely that it was ever performed as part of the liturgy or even in public concerts in Lübeck, which was dominated by orthodox Lutheranism. Many compositions by Buxtehude have come down to us thanks to Gustav Düben, who was Kapellmeister at the Swedish court in Stockholm. Buxtehude also dedicated this work to him, and it seems likely that it was performed there under Düben's direction.

There can be little doubt that Latin wasn't pronounced the Italian way as it is mostly today. It is rather odd that Sigiswald Kuijken seems not to have realised. Has he given it any thought at all? The existing recordings are different in regard to the number of singers involved. Some are with solo singers and a (small) choir, others make use of soli and ripieni. Kuijken only uses solo voices which also sing the tutti episodes. In this respect this recording is comparable with the one by Cantus Cölln.

The pietistic character of the text requires an expressive interpretation, without any exaggeration such as the theatrical performances by the Lautten Compagney and La Chapelle Rhénane. The present performance is at the other end of the spectrum. Kuijken uses five very fine voices, whose diction and articulation are excellent and blend perfectly in the tutti. However, as far as the expression of the text is concerned they fail to convince. Never during this performance I have been touched in any way. The tempi are pretty fast. A comparison with what in my view is the best recording available - Cantus Cölln - is quite revealing. Only the tempo in cantata III (Ad manus) is almost the same (8'28" vs 8'17"). Otherwise Kuijken is considerably faster: 7'11" vs 8'46" (cantata I), 6'44" vs 8'36" (II), 7'43" vs 9'41" (V), 7'53" vs 9'11" (VI). It is not that Cantus Cölln is generally slow, but there is more differentiation in tempo and basically in everything else. There certainly should not be large dynamic contrasts, but a really speech-like performance should result in a clear dynamic shading and an emphasis on the stressed syllables. The singing is dynamically pretty flat, and the same goes for the playing of the strings. There is little depth in this performance and the pietistic nature of these texts is not conveyed.

The addition of the Fried- und freudenreiche Hinfahrt is not the most logical choice as it has no connection to Passiontide or Easter. It comprises two parts: the first was written in 1671 for the funeral of the Lübeck Superintendant Menno Hanneken, the second at the occasion of the death of Buxtehude's father Johannes in 1674. That same year the whole work was published. These two parts are quite different in character. The first is based on the Lutheran hymn Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin, inspired by the song of Simeon, known in Latin as Nunc dimittis. The four sections are all in four parts which are treated according to the rules of counterpoint, and are reversed and mirrored. The second part consists of a poem in seven stanzas by Buxtehude himself for soprano, viols and bc. Its emotional content is emphasized by the indication that the viols have to play tremulo. It is surprising and annoying that once again only some of the stanzas are performed. The reason can't be a lack of space as with a little over 65 minutes there was more than enough space left for the other stanzas. In the booklet the stanzas 1, 3 and 7 are printed, but in fact we hear the fourth rather than the third. Apparently because of the German language the bass in the first part is Jens Hamann rather than Fulvio Bettini; the soprano in both parts is Anne-Kathrin Schenck. Both do well in the first part. In the second Ms Schenck also sings well, and especially the very high notes in the third line. But that is all; the highly emotional character of this piece is not really explored.

The qualities of singers and players notwithstanding, this is a largely disappointing production which falls short in the expression of the content of Buxtehude's masterpieces.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

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