musica Dei donum

CD reviews

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

Luthers Bach Ensemble
Dir: Tymen Jan Bronda

rec: March 10 - 15, 2021, Groningen, Lutheran Church
Brilliant Classics - 96592 ( 2022) (59'39")
Liner-notes: E/NL; no lyrics
Cover, track-list & booklet

Kristen Witmer, Lucia Caihuela, soprano; Jan Kullmann, alto; William Knight, tenor; Matthew Baker, bass
Cecilia Bernardini, Elise Dupont, violin; Robert Smith, treble viol, violone; Evan Butter, tenor viol; Nika Zlataric, Anna Lachegyi, Alon Portal, bass viol; Israel Golani, theorbo; Robert Koolstra, harpsichord, organ

The cantata cycle Membra Jesu nostri is a most remarkable work. Its text is something one wouldn't expect to be set to music by a composer of Lutheran orientation. It is based on Rhythmica Oratio, a collection of hymns which address the parts of the body of Christ hanging on the cross. This collection was attributed to the medieval mystic Bernard de Clairvaux (1091-1153), but today is generally thought to have been written by the Cistercian monk Arnulf de Louvain (c1200-1250). The fact that these mystic texts were used by a Lutheran composer can be explained by the fact that Martin Luther held Bernard de Clairvaux in high esteem. The Lutheran theologian Johann Arndt (1555-1621) played a crucial role in the spreading of Bernard's mysticism in the world of Lutheranism. He also translated the Rhythmica Oratio into German. During the 17th century this aspect of Lutheran thinking was enforced by the rise of pietism, which was in favour of making way for subjective sentiments of fervour, compassion and emotion.

These are present in abundance in this cantata cycle. The seven parts of Christ's body are ordered from the perspective of someone standing at the foot of the cross and looking upwards. First he looks at his feet, then his knees, hands, side, breast, heart and at last his face. Every cantata begins with a dictum, a passage from the Bible, which mostly can't be linked directly to Jesus' Passion at the cross, but rather refers to a particular part of the body. For instance, the first cantata, Ad pedes (To the feet), begins with a verse from the book of the prophet Nahum (ch 2, vs1): "Behold, upon the mountains the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace". The connection between the third cantata, Ad latus (To the side), and its opening dictum isn't quite clear. It is from the Song of Solomon (ch 2, vs13-14): "Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away: O my dove that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs". In the fifth cantata, Ad pectus (To the breast), the dictum is connected to the next sections by association: "As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby: if so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious" (1 Peter 2,2-3).

All seven cantatas have the same structure: they start with an instrumental sinfonia, which is followed by the dictum, set in the form of a concerto for three to five voices, and three arias for solo voices, supported by basso continuo, which are separated by instrumental ritornellos. At the end the dictum is repeated. The sixth cantata is a specific case: whereas in all the cantatas the instrumental ensemble consists of two violins and basso continuo, in this cantata the voices - here reduced to three - are supported by five viole da gamba and basso continuo. This different scoring indicates that this cantata, Ad cor (To the heart), is litterally the heart of this cycle. These cantatas were written as a cycle, as their keys show: the first is in A minor, the next in E flat, G minor, D minor, A minor and E minor and the last returns to C minor. And it can hardly be a coincidence that both the first aria of the first cantata and the last aria of the last cantata are scored for the tutti.

Today this work belongs to the standard repertoire for Passiontide. However, there are still many unanswered questions, such as the exact reason Buxtehude composed it, for which moment in the ecclesiastical year it was written and where it was performed. The fact that the latter question can't be answered implies that it is impossible to say how exactly it was performed and with how many singers and players. However, the character of this work and the scoring strongly suggest a performance with one voice per part, possibly with one additional ripienist to every vocal part. Moreover, vocal music in the 17th century is basically written for an ensemble which sings the tutti and whose members also take care of the solo parts. A performance with solo voices and choir does not necessarily create problems, but needs special effort to make sure that there is a natural connection between the two. The catalogue includes quite a number of recordings, and in some the tutti parts are sung by a choir. In my experience, these are the less convincing. The recording of the Luthers Bach Ensemble falls into the category of one-voice-per-part.

The various recordings show different approaches to this cycle of cantatas. Tyman Jan Bronda, in his liner-notes, states: "The surprising thing is the perfect combination of the strict Protestant North German style and that of the Italian school, the symbiosis of mystical outbursts and extremely transparent sounds". The influence of the Italian style is unmistakeable, and this has made some performers adopting a quite dramatic approach to this cycle. However, the Membra Jesu nostri are a work of great expression, but it is what I would like to call 'introverted expression'. I think that any theatricality should be avoided. This recording is certainly expressive, but Bronda and his ensemble have not fallen into the trap of making it too dramatic. There are marked dynamic contrasts, but these are not exaggerated, and the performers also avoided to add too much ornamentation.

Obviously, if one chooses to perform these works with one voice per part, this means that in the tutti the voices need to blend perfectly. That is certainly the case here. They have their individual character, and the two sopranos don't sound exactly the same, but Bronda has brought together a fine quintet of singers whose voices are very good matches. All of them are entirely convincing in their solos. The instrumental ensemble, with one instrument per part, provides an ideal counterpoint to the singers.

The Luthers Bach Ensemble is probably known only in the Netherlands. With this recording it has the chance to become known to a wider audience, and that is well deserved. This is a very fine recording, which can compete with many recordings in the catalogue. I have several recordings in my collection, but I certainly shall return to this one, when I want to listen to one of the masterworks of the baroque era.

Johan van Veen ( 2023)

Relevant links:

Luthers Bach Ensemble

CD Reviews