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

Vox Scaniensis
Dir: Peter Wallin

rec: May 1 - 4, 2013, Eslöv (SWE), Näs Kyrka
Lawo Classics - LWM010 (© 2016) (59'09")
Liner-notes: E/Swe; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Helena Ek, Kristina Hellgren, soprano; Anna Einarsson, contralto; Johan Linderoth, tenor; Jakob Bloch Jespersen, bass; Hannah Tibell, Hanna Idmark, violin; Lars Braunkilde, Hanna Thiel, viola da gamba; Judith-Maria Blomsterberg, cello; Vegard Lund, lute; Peter Wallin, organ

Since about the beginning of this century Buxtehude's cantata cycle Membra Jesu nostri has received a status which is close to that of Bach's Passions. Almost every year I receive a new recording to be reviewed. Unfortunately there are many unanswered questions about this work, among them when and where it was first performed and for which occasion Buxtehude composed it.

Membra Jesu nostri is a most remarkable work considering that it comes from the pen of a Lutheran composer who dedicated it to his "honoured friend" Gustav Düben (c1629 - 1690), who was Kapellmeister at the Swedish court - also firmly Lutheran. The text is a combination of verses from the Bible and extracts from Rhythmica Oratio, a collection of hymns which address the parts of the body of Christ hanging on the cross. In Buxtehude's time this work was attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the most prominent medieval mystics. He is still mentioned as the author in the liner-notes to the present disc, but today it 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.

All cantatas have the same structure: they start with an instrumental sinfonia, which is followed by the dictum (a quotation from the Bible) set in the form of a concerto for three to five voices, and three arias for one to three solo voices, supported by basso continuo, which are divided by instrumental ritornellos. At the end the dictum is repeated, with the exception of the seventh cantata which ends with "Amen".

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. It all starts with the line-up. There are some recordings, in which the tutti episodes are performed with a choir, but that seems not in line with the intimate character of this work. After all, the texts strongly suggest a performance outside the church, for instance in domestic surroundings or a smallish chapel. Vox Scaniensis offers a performance with one voice per part which is probably the ideal, although the addition of one ripieno voice to each of the five solo voices is a legitimate alternative.

I had never heard of this ensemble, but I am impressed by their performances here. The five singers are excellent: they have very nice and agile voices which blend perfectly. Latin is pronounced as it was common in Germany, and the text is very clearly comprehensible. The tempi are well chosen and so are the dynamic contrasts, which are moderate. Buxtehude is clearly influenced by the Italian style but Membra Jesu nostri should not be performed in a theatrical manner. Mostly the expression of this cycle of cantatas comes off very well. Thanks to the precise intonation the incisive dissonants in 'Quid sunt plagae' from Cantata III (Ad manus) have a maximum effect. It is only in the second cantata that I was not fully satisfied with the performance of the strings. Dynamically their playing is a little too flat, and as a result the Seufzer which are so characteristic of this cantata are underexposed.

However, this is a relatively small detail in a recording which I rate very high. If you look for a really good recording of this masterpiece, you won't be disappointed if you go for this disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

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