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

Emma Kirkby, Elin Manahan Thomas, sopranoa; Michael Chance, altob; Charles Daniels, tenorc; Peter Harvey, bassd
The Purcell Quartet; Fretwork

rec: Dec 3 - 5, 2009, London, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb
Chandos - CHAN 0775 (© 2010) (78'56")

Dietrich BUXTEHUDE: Laudate, pueri, Dominum (BuxWV 69)a; Membra Jesu nostri (BuxWV 75)abcd; Matthias WECKMANN (1616?-1674): Kommet her zu mir alled

[PQ] Catherine Mackintosh, Catherine Weiss, violin; Richard Boothby, bass violin; Robert Woolley, organ
[Fr] Susanne Pell, treble viol, bass viol; Richard Boothby, tenor viol; William Hunt, Asako Morikawa, bass viol; Richard Campbell, great bass viol

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.

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. Next is an aria of three stanzas for solo voices, mostly supported by basso continuo alone, and divided by instrumental ritornellos. At the end the dictum is repeated, with the exception of the last cantata, which ends with an 'Amen'. The sixth cantata is different: 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 the cycle. The cyclic character of this work is underpinned by the keys in which the seven cantatas are written.

There are many recordings of this work on the market. They often differ in scoring: in some the tutti are performed with a choir, whereas in others the soloists are joined by ripienists in the tutti. The present recording is strictly performed with one voice per part: the five soloists also sing all the tutti episodes. It is impossible to say which approach is historically most plausible. We don't know when and where this work was performed in Buxtehude's time, and with how many singers. 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 was first performed in Stockholm. And although it is not impossible that Buxtehude himself has performed this work as well, it was certainly not sung during the liturgy. And considering its intimate character a performance during the Abendmusiken is also not very likely.

This last aspect makes me think that a performance with a small vocal ensemble, with five singers or with ripienists does most justice to the spirit of this work. It isn't that easy to perform it really well. Membra Jesu nostri is a work of great expression, but not in an operatic way. It is crucial that the meditative, pietistic character is respected. The text should be in the centre, and that means that the delivery, the articulation and the accentuation is of the highest importance. And that is where this recording disappoints. Some passages come off very well, for instance the opening tutti of 'Ad manus' ('Quid sunt plagae istae'). In that same cantata the third stanza of the aria is also really expressive. That is scored for alto, tenor and bass, and episodes in this scoring are the most convincing parts of this performance. That is mainly due to Charles Daniels and Peter Harvey whose articulation and accentuation of single words and syllables is mostly very good. Michael Chance is less convincing here, as he sings more legato and with little dynamic differentiation. The differences between these three are becoming crystal clear in the aria from 'Ad pectus', where each of them sings one stanza. But their voices blend very well, and that is not the case with the two sopranos. Elin Manahan Thomas uses too much vibrato and that not only damages her solos; the tutti episodes also suffer. Moreover she sings too much legato and doesn't do enough with the text. Emma Kirkby is much more convincing in this department as she sensibly differentiates between words and syllables. Her diction is impeccable, as always.

The role of the instruments seems limited as they mostly only play the sinfonias and the ritornellos. But these instrumental parts are quite expressive. The viols are crucial in the sixth cantata, and the second cantata, 'Ad genua', begins with a sonata in tremulo. In particular in German music of the 17th century the tremolo was a device which was often used in passages of strong emotion. The Purcell Quartet's playing of this sonata is rather feeble, and lacks expression. That is a general feature of the instrumental parts: they are rather pale and dynamically too flat.

The addition of the two pieces by Buxtehude and Weckmann is a little odd, as they are not connected to Passiontide. They have probably been chosen because of the instrumental scorings. Laudate, pueri, Dominum by Buxtehude is set for two sopranos with five-part viol consort and bc, whereas Weckmann's sacred concerto Kommet her zu mir alle is for bass solo with two violins, three viole da gamba and bc. Buxtehude's cantata is a setting of Psalm 113 (112, Vulgata): "Praise ye the Lord". It is a beautiful piece, but the performance is again disappointing because of Ms Thomas's vibrato. Her voice and Ms Kirkby's don't blend that well, and as a result there is too little ensemble. Weckmann's concerto is much better: the solo part is quite virtuosic, with many melismatic passages which show that Weckmann was influenced by the modern concertante style from Italy. Peter Harvey gives an impressive account of the bass part, and his articulation and pronunciation are immaculate. And for some reasons the playing of the Purcell Quartet and Fretwork is much better here than in Buxtehude's Membra Jesu nostri.

It is a shame that the main work on this disc doesn't achieve a really satisfying performance which explores its depth of expression. The best recording with solo voices is by Cantus Cölln.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

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