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

Robin Blaze, alto; John Mark Ainsley, tenor; Giles Underwood, bass
Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford; Instrumental ensemble; Phantasm
Dir: Daniel Hyde

rec: July 11 - 14 & August 15, 2013, Oxford, Magdalen College Chapel
Opus Arte - OA CD9023 D (© 2014) (62'00")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Simon Jones, Dan Edgar, James Toll, violin; Emily Ashton, cello; Judith Evans, double bass; David Miller, theorbo; Matthew Martin, organ
[Phantasm] Laurence Dreyfus, treble viol; Emilia Benjamin, Jonathan Manson, tenor viol; Mikko Perkola, Markku Loulajan-Mikkola, 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.

Today this work belongs to the standard repertoire for Passiontide. However, there are still many unanswered questions, such as the exact reason Buxtehude composed it, for exactly which moment in the ecclesiastical year it was written and where it was performed. The fact that the latter question can't be answered implies that it is impossible to say how exactly it was performed and with how many singers and players. However, the meditative character of this work and the scoring strongly suggest a performance with one voice per part, possibly with one additional ripienist to every vocal part. There are many recordings on the market and the list is still growing. One of the latest additions is the present recording which falls into the category of choral performances.

The booklet includes an essay on the character and texture of this work by Bettina Varwig. It includes several inaccuracies and debatable statements. We are told that every cantata includes arias set for "one or two sopranos and/or bass voice, plus basso continuo". However, the second cantata has three arias: the last is for two sopranos and bass, but the first is for tenor and the second for alto. Other cantatas include arias for three voices: alto, tenor and bass. Ms Varwig points out that the full title of Buxtehude's work reveals "a particular form of mystical piety that underpins the cycle as a whole". She then goes on: "By focusing on the idea of 'devotion' and 'the heart', and by naming Christ as 'our' Jesus, Buxtehude invites a personal, emotional response to the Crucifixion. In this, he departed from the orthodox Lutheran position that advocated an intellectual understanding of the Passion events". This is at least a one-sided view: medieval mystical writings were very much part of Lutheranism as I have outlined above. Moreover, one has to take into account the difference between a regular service in church and more intimate events where meditative music like the Membra Jesu nostri was performed. One could even argue that Luther's purpose was exactly what Ms Varwig sees as a feature of this cantata cycle. The Passion of Christ is the heart of Lutheran theology, often characterised as 'theology of the Cross'. The Passion was part of the liturgy and aimed at making the congregation 'relive', as it were, Christ's Passion, and that way be reminded once again of its own sins and the necessity of Jesus' suffering and death. "Buxtehude's work instead appears intent on evoking a compassionate reaction from his listeners (...)." But that was the aim of all Lutheran Passion music, although composers used different means of achieving this. And if one asks for other specimens of music "evoking a compassionate reaction from its listeners", look at Bach's Passions.

It is said that we don't know exactly when and where Membra Jesu nostri was performed, except that it is very likely that Gustav Düben performed these cantatas. The suggestion that they may have been performed during the Abendmusiken in Lübeck is rather implausible as these took place during the five weeks before Christmas - not exactly the time a work like this is likely to have been performed. At several moments we find a tremolo, either in the vocal or the instrumental parts. The tremolo in the sixth cantata, Ad cor, is explained as "providing a kind of sonorous halo for his [the bass's] utterances". However, the tremolo was a practice well known from music of a lamento character in 17th-century Germany, expressing strong emotions. Here they certainly refer to the extreme sufferings of Jesus at the cross.

The performance is just as unsatisfying as the liner-notes. As has been stated above the meditative and intimate character of the Membra points in the direction of a performance with solo voices, probably with ripieno singers for the tutti episodes. A performance with a full choir as is the case here can hardly do justice to its character. Moreover, the singing and playing are generally rather bland, with little expression from the soloists and hardly any dynamic shading in the vocal and instrumental parts. It is also rather odd that the soprano soli are sung by a group of trebles. That is not what a solo part is written for, and you can hardly expect an expressive performance with such a line-up. Ironically, in the opening concerto of Ad cor, "Vulnerasti cor meum", the soprano parts are sung by two trebles from the choir, and this is one of the most expressive parts of this performance. What if these two had also sung the other soprano parts?

I am not very impressed by the adult soloists either. Their singing is short on expression and the voices don't blend that well, also due to Ainsley's incessant vibrato, albeit not very wide. The Italian pronunciation of Latin is fully unjustified. The whole issue has not been given any thought, I'm afraid. That is probably typical of this performance as a whole. It has not been thought over well enough, and as a result the interpretation is off the mark.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford

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