musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"Septem Verba & Membra Jesu Nostri"

Ensemble Correspondances
Dir: Sébastien Daucé

rec: Sept 2020, Saintes, Abbaye aux Dames
Harmonia mundi - HMM 902350.51 (© 2021) (2.03'18")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet
Scores Buxtehude

Dieterich BUXTEHUDE (c1637-1707): Herzlich lieb hab ich dich, o Herr (BuxWV 41); Membra Jesu nostri (BuxWB 75); Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin (BuxWV 76,1) - Klag-Lied: Muß der Tod denn auch entbinden (BuxWV 76,2); Lüdert DIJKMAN (c1645-1717): Lamentum eller En Sorge-Music; Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672): Die sieben Wortte unsers lieben Erlösers und Seeligmachers Jesu Christi (Da Jesus an dem Kreuze stund) (SWV 478) Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott (SWV 447)

Caroline Bardot, Perrine Devillers, Julie Roset, Caroline Weynants, soprano; Lucile Richardot, contralto; Paul-Antoine Bénos, alto; Davy Cornillot, Antonin Rondepierre, tenor; Étienne Bazola, Nicolas Brooymans, bass
Josèphe Cottet, Simon Pierre, violin; Mathilde Vialle, Louise Bouedo, Matthias Ferré, Julie Dessaint, viola da gamba; Étienne Floutier, viola da gamba, violone, double bass; Caroline Lieby, harp; Diego Salamanca, lute; Thibaut Roussel, theorbo; Matthieu Boutineau, Sébastien Daucé, harpsichord, organ

As Christ's Passion and death were the heart of Martin Luther's theology, it can hardly surprise that music for Passiontide takes a major place in sacred music written in Protestant Germany during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. There is much to choose from, but in our time a kind of canon has come into existence, which includes the two Passions by Johann Sebastian Bach, the Membra Jesu nostri by Dieterich Buxtehude and the Stabat mater by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. In recent years quite a number of other works have been released on disc, but these four pieces are hard to beat. George Frideric Handel performed his Messiah always during Lent, but today it is almost exclusively associated with Advent and Christmas.

Buxtehude's Membra Jesu nostri is available in quite a number of recordings. It is not hard to understand why it continues to exert such a strong attraction to performers and audiences alike. The 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 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 Christ's 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 three to five voices, and three arias for solo voices, supported by basso continuo, which are divided by instrumental ritornellos. At the end the dictum is repeated, except in tje seventh cantata, which ends with an 'Amen'. The sixth cantata is a special case: whereas in all 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 literally the heart of this cycle. The sequence of keys attests to the fact that the cantatas were indeed intended as a cycle: "The keys of the individual pieces move, mostly in intervals of a fifth, from the 'low' area of the flat tonalities to the 'high' sharps, although the last cantata is once again in the initial key of C minor, thus establishing the overarching unity of the cycle." (booklet) 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.

Given that this cantata cycle is available in a number of recordings, some of which are excellent, one may wonder whether this recording by the Ensemble Correspondances has anything to add. There is at least one thing that is probably different from other recordings (but I have not heard each one of them). Buxtehude wrote his work in 1680 and dedicated it to Gustav Düben (c1628-1690), music director to the Swedish court, but also organist and Kapellmeister at the German church in Stockholm, where this cycle may have been performed. He wrote it out in tablature notation, but the Uppsala University Library, where it is preserved, also owns performing parts which were probably made by Düben. There are several differences between the two versions. The latter includes parts for a viola in three cantatas. Moreover, the role of the viola da gamba and violone is different in that they do not play systematically with the violins or the basso continuo. A third difference is that Düben, if he was the one responsible for the creation of the performing parts, added the indications soli and ripieni to the vocal parts, which proves that he did perform these cantatas with more than one voice per part. This results in a recording in which ten singers are involved. This may well be in line with the performance practice in Stockholm. Strictly speaking we have here Buxtehude's cantata cycle in a version probably by Düben.

That is reason enough to assess this recording as an alternative to what it already available on disc. Moreover, the performance is of the highest level. The ensemble may be a specialist in French music of the baroque era, it shows here that it knows its way in other repertoire as well. Independent of the slightly different line-up, this is one of the best performances of this work in the catalogue to date. The ensemble is perfect, but the individual singers are also impressive.

Another reason to recommend this production is what is added to Buxtehude's cantata cycle. The latter takes the first half of the programme, which in the physical production is CD 1. The second half (CD 2) has one work as its heart: Die sieben Wortte unsers lieben Erlösers und Seeligmachers Jesu Christi by Heinrich Schütz, which is quite different from Buxtehude's cantata cycle. It is not known when and for which occasion it was composed. The closing chorus is listed in a catalogue from 1659, and therefore it must have been written well before that year; 1645 has been mentioned as the year of composing.

There are some interesting aspects in this work. The music is relatively simple, and therefore it was perhaps composed for small chapels which didn't have professional singers. The work opens and closes with stanzas from the passion hymn Da Jesus an dem Kreuze stund (Schütz doesn't use the chorale melody, though), which is also about Jesus's words at the cross. Schütz presents these words in prose, in the form of motets. Schütz changes the order of the words as they are referred to in the hymn and brings them in line with the actual order as reported in the Gospels. The words of Jesus at the cross are supported by two violins, a practice which was also used by Schütz's pupil Johann Theile and later Johann Sebastian Bach in their respective settings of the Passion according to St Matthew. The words of the Evangelist are given to a solo voice (soprano, alto or tenor), or an ensemble of four voices. This reminds of the practice in Schütz's Auferstehungshistorie. The piece isn't dramatic, but has a rather meditative character, as the closing stanza indicates: "Who holds in reverence God's torment and thinks often of the seven words, God will keep him". Stylistically this work is a combination of the stile antico (motets) and the modern concertato style which Schütz had become acquainted with in Italy: the biblical passages are set in a declamatory style, the hallmark of the Italian monody. The fact that here the narrative of the Gospels is in the centre marks a substantial difference with Buxtehude's cantatas. Schütz's work is objective, so to speak, whereas Buxtehude's cantatas are highly subjective. The latter are a product of pietism, which is absent in anything Schütz has written.

In comparison to Buxtehude's Membra Jesu nostri, this work by Schütz is far less well-known, and not that well represented on disc. That is regrettable, and this recording by Daucé is most welcome, especially as the performance is outstanding and completely idiomatic.

The remaining pieces are more indirectly connected to Christ's Passion. Some of them are associated with the decease of a particular person. However, a performance in a programme with Passion music makes some sense, as in Lutheran doctrine it is due to Christ's Passion that death is not the end, but rather the transition to life everlasting. That is also expressed in Buxtehude's Klag-Lied, the setting of a poem in seven stanzas, most likely from the composer's own pen, written at the occasion of the death of his father. This is the fifth stanza: "And now that he has received what he ever loved, and his refuge: 'I long for thee!' [God] These were his last words. His longing is requited, all his wishes are fulfilled. I, his son, must not begrudge him the infinite joys of Jesus." This thought is emphasized with the piece to which it is connected: an arrangement of Luther's hymn Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin, one of the most frequently-used funeral hymns in Protestant Germany at the time, which says: "As God did promise me, death to me is become but a sleep. That is the doing of Christ, true Son of God, the faithful Saviour (...)". The Klag-Lied is one of Buxtehude's most moving works, very much in line with the Membra Jesu nostri. The scoring is for solo voice, and here we get a magnificent and highly expressive performance by the admirable Lucile Richardot. Notable are the many embellishments she adds, more than I remember having heard in other recordings. It is nice that here all the stanzas are performed, which unfortunately is seldom the case in other recordings.

Those who are acquainted with this kind of repertoire may know most of the pieces recorded here. The exception is almost certainly Lamentum eller En Sorge-Music by the Swedish composer Lüdert Dijkman, who has no entry in New Grove and whose name I have never seen in a programme of music. This lament has been written at the occasion of the death of the Swedish princes Gustav and Ulrik in 1685, and may have been performed as part of the funeral ceremony.

Two pieces are remaining. First, Schütz's concerto Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott, which is a very expressive composition for soprano and a consort of viols on the text of the first stanza from a rhymed version by Erhart Hegenwald (1524) of Psalm 51 (50), known in Latin as Miserere mei, Deus. The melody dates from the same year, and this is one of the relatively rare occasions where Schütz makes use of a hymn melody as sung in the Lutheran church of his time.

The programme closes with another hymn arrangement, Herzlich lieb hab ich dich o Herr (Martin Schalling, 1569). Especially the last stanza has become famous because Bach used it to close his St John Passion: 'Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein'. Buxtehude set all three stanzas, but treats the melody in different ways. The first stanza has the form, known as 'chorale sinfonia': the soprano sings the chorale melody in its original form, without any ornamentation. The next two stanzas are in concerto form: the five voices (SSATB) treat the melody with considerable freedom, in the interest of text expression. Listen, for instance, to "Defend me from Satan's murder and lies", followed by "In all of my crosses support me", which builds a strong contrast to the previous lines. The polyphony is interrupted by homophonic tutti episodes. In the opening lines of the last stanza - "Ah, Lord, let thy dear angel, when my last hour comes, bear my soul to Abraham's bosom" - the voices are accompanied by strings playing tremolo. The word "rest" (let my body ... gently rest) is set to long note values.

This is all brilliantly done. The performances on this production are stylistically convincing and, more importantly, they communicate the content and meaning of the pieces included here in a most incisive manner. This is one of the best recordings of Passion music of recent years.

Johan van Veen (© 2024)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Correspondances

CD Reviews