musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Dietrich BUXTEHUDE (c1637 - 1707): "Membra Jesu nostri - Choralkantaten"

Christina Kaiser, Astrid Werner, Anja Zügner, soprano; Alexander Schneider, alto; Tobias Hunger, tenor; Matthias Lutze, Marek Rzepka, bass
Dresdner Kammerchor; Instrumental ensemble
Dir: Hans-Christoph Rademann

rec: February 11, 2007 (live), Dresden, Lukaskirche
Carus - 83.234 (© 2007) (69'01")

Membra Jesu nostri (BuxWV 75); Walts Gott, mein Werk ich lasse (BuxWV 103); Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit (BuxWV 102)

Daniel Deuter, Margret Baumgartl, violin; Juliane Laake, Benjamin Dreßler, Katharina Schlegel, Renate Pank, viola da gamba; Matthias Müller, viola da gamba, violone; Michael Dücker, theorbo; Michaela Hasselt, organ

The Membra Jesu nostri have always been the most famous vocal work by Buxtehude, and has been recorded many times. The commemoration of his death in 1707 has resulted in the list of recordings being extended considerably. This recording is one of the handful which have been released in 2007. As I have given information about the character of this piece elsewhere, I can concentrate on the features and the qualities of this particular interpretation as well as on the two chorale cantatas which have been added on this disc.

This performance is one of those in which the tutti are sung by a choir. There is no concluding evidence as to whether a choir should be used or this work should rather be performed with one voice per part. Cantus Cölln chose this option, whereas Wolfgang Katschner is in the middle of these two alternatives: he uses ripieno singers to support the soloists in the tutti sections. This work was written for Gustav Düben, and nothing is known about a performance by him. The meditative character of this work seems to point into the direction of a small scoring, and I think this is also historically the most plausible option. An addition of ripieno singers could be defended, but it is important to make sure there is enough stylistic unity between the soli and the tutti. Although the soloists in this recording are - as far as I can tell on the basis of the information in the booklet - no members of the choir, there is no clash between soli and tutti here.

The choir and the instrumentalists are the best part of this interpretation. The Dresdner Kammerchor is an excellent ensemble and proves that here again. That the tutti are not always really satisfying and are a little too uninvolved has not so much to do with the qualities of the choir but rather with the fact - as indicated above - that this music doesn't fare that well with a choral performance.

It is a little disappointing that the soloists can't really convince either. Most of them have very good voices - although one bass has a irritating tremolo in his voice - but their singing is a bit bland and flat. I had liked more text expression from them. In addition the alto has some problems with the low notes of his part. There are also some questionable decisions in regard to scoring. The cantatas 5 and 6 begin (after the sonata) with a trio, scored ATB and SSB respectively. As in all cantatas the opening movement is repeated at the end, but here in the repeat the movement is sung by all voices. So what we have here is a 'choir' of three voices. The same happens in the first section of the 'aria' in cantata 7, which is scored for alto, tenor and bass. This is all very debatable: firstly I can't see the logic of changing the scoring in the repeat. Secondly I think it is safe to say that in the baroque era all pieces for less than 4 voices are meant to be sung by solo voices. I am pretty sure that every section with the indication 'tutti' contains at least four parts.
Lastly I am surprised that the Latin text is pronounced in the Italian manner, for which I can't see any historical justification.

I don't know all recordings of the Membra Jesu nostri where a choir is involved, but even so I think in that category this recording must be considered one of the best. But if you want to hear a really convincing interpretation which reveals the full emotional content of this masterpiece a recording with one voice per part - or alternatively with additional ripieno singers - is the best possible option. And the recording by Cantus Cölln is hard to surpass.

In addition to the Membra Jesu nostri two chorale cantatas are performed, both appearing on record for the first time. Both are relatively simple and straightforward pieces, which mainly consist of dialogues between the voices (SATB) and the instruments (2 violins and bc). The instruments play short ritornelli between every two lines and between the stanzas. Only in some stanzas (the last of the three in BuxWV 102 and the third and sixth in BuxWV 103) they also support the choir. Here I had liked more dynamic accents and more stressing of elements in the text. But on the whole these two pieces get very fine performances, and they show a different aspect of Buxtehude's sacred oeuvre.

Johan van Veen (© 2007)

Relevant links:

Dresdner Kammerchor

CD Reviews