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Dietrich BUXTEHUDE (1637 - 1707): Membra Jesu nostri

[A] Himlische Cantorey; Knabenchor Hannover; Barockensemble L'Arco
Dir: Jörg Breiding

rec: October 3 - 6, 2007, Hannover, Kirche des Stephansstifts
Rondeau - ROP70006 (© 2008) (75'39")

[HC] Veronika Winter, Gerlinde Sämann, soprano; Henning Voss, alto; Jan Kobow, tenor; Ralf Grobe, bass; [L'Arco] Christoph Heidemann, Birgit Fischer, violin; Barbara Hofmann, Irmelin Heiseke, Claas Harders, Jenny Westman, viola da gamba; Cordula Cordes, viola da gamba, violone; Martin Seemann, cello; Dennis Götte, chitarrone; Thomas Grunwald-Deyda, organ

[B] La Chapelle Rhénane; La Maîtrise de Garçons de Colmar
Dir: Benoît Haller

rec: October 28, 2007 (live), Ribeauville, Église Saint-Grégoire
K617 - K617207 (© 2008) (61'25")

[CR] Tanya Aspelmeier, Stéphanie Révidat, Salomé Haller, soprano; Rolf Ehlers, hautecontre; Julian Prégardien, tenor; Benoît Arnould, bass; Cosimo Stawiarski, Isabel Schau, violin; Sergio Alvarez, Barbara Leitherer, François-Joibert Caillet, Anne-Garance Fabre-Garrus, viola da gamba; Armin Bereuter, Élodie Peudepièce, violone; Jennifer Harris, bassoon; Marie Bournisien, harp; Thomas Boysen, theorbo; Sébastien Wonner, harpsichord, organ

Membra Jesu nostri (BuxWV 75); [A] Befiehl dem Engel, daß er komm (BuxWV 10); Fried- und freudenreiche Hinfahrt (BuxWV 76)

For a long time most vocal works by Dieterich Buxtehude have been ignored. The main exception was the cantata cycle Membra Jesu nostri. Before 2007, when Buxtehude's death was commemorated, there were already a number of recordings in the catalogue, but the commemoration has led to a stream of new interpretations, some of which have been reviewed elsewhere. It is the second recording with the Knabenchor Hannover, which was already involved in Ton Koopman's interpretation, made as part of the commemoration of Buxtehude's birth in 1987.

As I have written extensively about the character and structure of this work in my review of other recordings I am restricting myself to reviewing this particular recording. In his programme notes Peter Schnaus states: "Although it is no longer possible to prove through documentary evidence the exact place and circumstances of this work's first performances, this CD provides an authentic interpretation, in the manner of a performance such as would have been heard in St. Mary's Church, Lübeck at the time of Buxtehude". But how can we know whether a performance is "authentic" when we know next to nothing about when and where a piece of music was performed? Of course, there are some common features of performances in the baroque era, but circumstances could vary a lot from place to place.

First of all, we don't know if Membra Jesu nostri has ever been performed in the Marienkirche in Lübeck. Buxtehude dedicated this work to his "honoured friend" Gustav Düben (c1629 - 1690), who was Kapellmeister at the Swedish court. Perhaps the composition was a commission by Düben, who greatly admired Buxtehude and was an avid collector of his works. It is therefore likely the Membra Jesu nostri were first performed in Stockholm. I don't know if any information is available about the forces Düben had at his disposal, but I am pretty sure he didn't have a choir of the size as the Knabenchor Hannover. In fact, it seems there were very few places in Northern Europe where the vocal and instrumental ensembles were anything but pretty small.

One could argue that perhaps Buxtehude had more musicians at his disposal than were available in most other places. When he was serving in the Marienkirche as organist and also organised the Abendmusiken, he had the means to attract additional singers and instrumentalists, in particular to perform his oratorios. But very little is known about the number of performers nor about when and in which compositions he used them. Considering the character of Membra Jesu nostri it seems very unlikely the work was ever performed during regular services. And it seems to me its rather intimate, pietistic character makes it very unlikely it has been performed during the Abendmusiken either. So the claim that this particular recording is "authentic" seems a bit far-fetched to me.

Therefore we better treat this interpretation as one of the possible approaches of this work. It is equally plausible to perform it with one voice per part, as Cantus Cölln does, as with solo and ripieno voices which is what Wolfgang Katschner has opted for. The character of the work seems to require a rather small ensemble, though, and from this perspective the use of a full choir is less convincing.

Not that the Knabenchor Hannover doesn't give fine performances here. On the contrary, this choir of boys and men is one of the best in the performance of German sacred music of, in particular, the 17th century. Fine recordings with music by, for instance, Heinrich Schütz and Andreas Hammerschmidt, directed by Jörg Breiding or his predecessor, Heinz Hennig (who founded the choir) testify this. And that level is matched here. The solo parts are sung by an ensemble of solo singers, who have worked with this choir before. They also give splendid performances: they explore the expression of the combination of text and music as created by Buxtehude very well, and I especially like their very relaxed and fluent way of singing, with a very natural speech-like articulation and with fine dynamic shades. The pronunciation of the Latin text - according to what was common in Germany - is also very good, and even without looking in the booklet one can understand what they are singing. The instrumentalists perform at the same level, and the players seem well aware of what the text is about. They understand that expressing the text is not just a job for singers but for players as well.

The only thing which is less than satisfying is the difference in sound between the solo voices and the choir. 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. Using soloists and a choir doesn't necessarily create a problem, as the performance of the Dresdner Kammerchor, directed by Hans-Christoph Rademann shows, but when the soloists are adults and the choir consists of boys and men it is much harder to achieve a true ensemble sound. It is almost invitable that in sections where tutti and soli are alternating there is some kind of breach.

Having said all that I would like to express my pleasure with this recording. As far as the interpretation of this masterwork is concerned, this is definitely one of the best available. It does full justice to the intimate, meditative character of the Membra Jesu nostri. And as the use of boys' voices makes it standing apart from the rest, I don't hesitate to recommend it.

This recommendation is supported by the two additional pieces, Befiehl dem Engel, daß er komm (BuxWV 10) and the highly expressive Fried- und freudenreiche Hinfahrt (BuxWV 76), which is given a splendid performance by Veronika Winter.

It's a different story with the second recording, directed by Benoît Haller. A direct comparison makes sense, as the scoring is more or less the same: an ensemble of vocal soloists - here there are three sopranos, who share the parts -, a choir of boys and men and an instrumental ensemble. As the booklet of Jörg Breiding's recording doesn't give the names of the members of the choir it is difficult to compare the size of both choirs, but what is clear is that the Knabenchor Hannover is the better choir. It produces a better delivery of the text and the sound is clearer and brighter. In comparison La Maîtrise de Garçons de Colmar sounds a bit thick and massive. I don't think this is entirely due to the recording technique or to the fact that this is a live recording.

But the approach of both conductors is fundamentally different. Benoît Haller has opted for a more dramatic, Italian-influenced interpretation which puts him in the same department as Wolfgang Katschner. This is reflected by strong contrasts in tempi, an abundant application of ornamentation and a differentiation in the scoring of the basso continuo, including harpsichord and harp. Also the Latin text is pronounced the Italian way. In my review of Wolfgang Katschner's recording I have criticised this approach, and I am not going to repeat that here.

I confine myself to some remarks about the different cantatas. In the first cantata both sopranos use more vibrato than is stylistically defendable. In other cantatas it is slightly better but they are not the most convincing members of the ensemble. In the same cantata the bass has some problems with the lowest notes of his part.
In the sinfonia of the second cantata Buxtehude requires a tremolo in the strings. Here the tempo is so slow that this effect is unnatural and the sinfonia almost falls apart. As a result the expression which is the raison d'être of this effect is lacking here.
In the third cantata the contrast between soli and tutti are far less satisfying here than in Jörg Breiding's recording. The dramatic approach is all to audible here, with strong contrasts in tempo between soli and tutti and the use of several instruments in the basso continuo. The harpsichord is extremely busy, and as a result its sound is obtrusive. It happens elsewhere too, and it is damaging the meditative character of this cycle.
In the fourth cantata the tutti section is rather slow, and the dacapo at the end of the cantata is even slower. The reason for this escapes me. The same happens in the fifth cantata.
In cantata no 6 the ritornelli are much too fast in comparison to the arias. The dramatic performance of the bass aria is also contradictory to the character of this work.
The last cantata doesn't fare any better. In the trio words like "conquassatum" (beaten) and "vulneratum" (wounded) are emphasized in dramatic fashion, which may be appropriate in other kinds of music, but definitely not here. The aria for alto is sung by the tenor, which causes problems at the top notes. Towards the end the tempo slows down in an extreme way; the following ritornello is also played very slowly. The concluding "Amen" then is sung and played at high speed: it shouldn't be slow, but this is ridiculous. Jörg Breiding has found the right tempo: relatively fast but not hurried.

As one will gather from these remarks: the theatrical approach Benoît Haller has chosen not only violates the meditative character of the work, but it also doesn't work as the result shows. The direct comparison between these two recordings with soloists and an all-male choir can only lead to the conclusion that Jörg Breiding's interpretation does justice to the character of Buxtehude's masterwork, whereas Haller's does not.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

Relevant links:

Internationale Dieterich-Buxtehude-Gesellschaft
Knabenchor Hannover
La Maîtrise de Garçons de Colmar
La Chapelle Rhénane

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