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Dietrich BUXTEHUDE (1637 - 1707): Membra Jesu nostri

Cantus Cölln
Dir: Konrad Junghänel

rec: May 2005, Neustadt-Mandelsloh, Kirche St. Osdag
Harmonia mundi - HMC 901912 (© 2006) (74'06")

Membra Jesu nostri (BuxWV 75); Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott (BuxWV 78)

Johanna Koslowsky, Susanne Rydén, soprano; Elisabeth Popien, contralto; Wilfried Jochens, Hans-Jörg Mammel, tenor; Stephan Schreckenberger, bass; Ulla Bundies, Anette Sichelschmidt, violin; Mieneke van der Velden, Christine Plubeau, Joshua Cheatham, Ricardo R. Miranda, viola da gamba; Adrian Rovatkay, bassoon; Matthias Müller-Mohr, violone; Konrad Junghänel, lute; Carsten Lohff, organ

Capella Angelica; Lautten Compagney
Dir: Wolfgang Katschner

rec: June 12 - 14, 2004, Polditz, Kirche Alt-Leisnig
Raumklang - RK 2403 (© 2007) (64'01")

Jesu, meines Lebens Leben (BuxWV 62); Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe (BuxWV 38); Membra Jesu nostri (BuxWV 75)

[CA] Anette Geiss*, Stephanie Petitlaurent, Barbara Christina Steude, Susanne Wilsdorf*, soprano; Beat Duddeck*, Alexander Schneider, alto; Michael Schaffrath*, Maximilian Schmitt, tenor; Matthias Lutze, Matthias Vieweg, bass [(*) ripieni]; [LC] Catherine Aglibut, Birgit Schnurpfeil, violin; Juliane Laake, Annette Rheinfurth, viola da gamba; Ulrike Becker, viola da gamba, violone; Barbara Hofmann, violone; Hans-Werner Apel, Andreas Nachtsheim, theorbo; Mark Nordstrand, organ

The cantata cycle Membra Jesu nostri is a most remarkable work, which is one of the reasons it is regularly performed and has been recorded more than once. The text of this work 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 at the cross. This collection was attributed to the medieval mystic Bernard de Clairvaux (1091-1153), but today it is generally thought to be 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. In Luther's theology the direct relationship between the individual believer and God was a central issue: Lutheranism did away with the role of the priest as mediator between the believer and God. In particular the Vier Bücher vom Wahren Christentum (1606-09) by 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 enhanced by the rise of pietism, which was in favour of making way to 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 (2, vs 1): "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 (2,13-14): "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 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 3 to 5 voices, and three arias for solo voices, supported by basso continuo, which are divided by instrumental ritornellos. At the end the dictum is repeated. The sixth cantata is a specific case: whereas in all cantatas the instrumental ensemble consists of two violins and bc, in this cantata the voices - here reduced to three - are supported by five viole da gamba and bc. 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 both scored for tutti.

Membra Jesu nostri is a work of great expression, but it is what I would call 'introverted expression'. It is crucial for any interpretation that its pietistic, meditative character is respected. I am very impressed by the recording of Cantus Cölln because of the subtlety with which the emotion of the text is expressed. The dynamic shades in this recording, both in the vocal and the instrumental parts, are limited but very effective and eloquent. The precise articulation and diction of the singers makes it easy to keep up with the text, and the blending of the voices in the tutti is excellent. There is also a some variation in the scoring of the basso continuo, according to the character of the piece. The ornamentation is discreet, and that is certainly right. In short, this is an ideal interpretation, in my view even the best available. It is perhaps also the best recording in the impressive catalogue of this ensemble.

The second recording is very different. Here the Membra Jesu nostri sounds like an Italian dramatic work. There are strong dynamic contrasts, a large amount of ornamentation and most cantatas are performed in faster tempi than every other recording I know. The use of two theorbos in the basso continuo also contributes to the 'Italianate' character of this performance as well as the text expression of the singers. In many cases this would be admirable, but here it is completely out of place. The interpretation shows a severe misunderstanding of the intimate, meditative character of this cantata cycle. To make things even worse the scoring has been partly changed. As has been noticed before the sixth cantata has a different scoring: five viole da gamba and bc, instead of two violins and bc. For this recording two additional parts for viole da gamba have been composed for the other six cantatas. This way the specific status of the sixth cantata has been largely wiped off, which is in clear defiance of Buxtehude's intentions. This is just completely inacceptable. One of the principles of historical performance practice has always been to comply to the verifiable intentions of the composer. This principle is severely violated here.

In the last cantata on this disc, Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe, the scoring by Buxtehude seems not to satisfy the performers. It is set for soprano and instruments, but here the solo part is divided over two sopranos and two tenors, who sing the phrases in alternation, and sometimes sing unisono, for instance the closing "amen". I don't think anyone who knows anything about early music will believe this is what the composer had in mind. So why is it done then? Why do people think they know better than the composer?
The disc opens with another cantata, Jesu, meines Lebens Leben, rightly characterised in the booklet as a "song of thanks" for Christ's Passion. But it is simply not true that it "lacks any sort of lament about the Passion": not directly, but in the text there are many references to "mockery and scorn, spit, blows, rope and bonds" and the fact that Jesus has been cursed, insulted and beaten up, and that makes the speedy and dancelike performance here ridiculous and completely off the mark.

With this recording the Lautten Compagney has done Buxtehude an ill service.

Johan van Veen (© 2007)

Relevant links:

Internationale Dieterich-Buxtehude-Gesellschaft
Cantus Cölln
Lautten Compagney

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