Another excellent issue in this series. Truly joyful and played with profound gusto and sympathy.
This disc presents a subtle, delicately-articulated, gentle yet penetrating account of Buxtehude's seven-part cantata cycle
Membra Jesu nostri (The Limbs of our Jesus). It follows closely on Volume XV (reviewed here recently) of Ton Koopman's outstanding survey of all of Buxtehude's surviving works. The singing and playing, the sensitivity to the particularities as much as to the idiom of Buxtehude's beautiful music, the meticulous execution with both attention to detail and a holistic understanding of the composer's motives make this CD shine as much as any in the series.
Composed in 1680,Read more the
Membra Jesu nostri is essentially the first Lutheran oratorio. The main text comprises poetry from the mediaeval hymn, 'Salve mundi salutare', once thought to be by Bernard of Clairvaux but now more likely to have been the work of Arnulf of Louvain, who died in the middle of the C13th. Each section is addressed to a different part of Christ's crucified body… the feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, and face. Buxtehude then 'encloses' each strophe by repeating its opening Biblical verse.
Scored variously for five voices, SSATB (who also form the choir), two violins and basso continuo with a viola da gamba consort in the longest section (to the heart), Buxtehude's splendid and moving
Membra Jesu nostri was dedicated to Gustaf Düben, friend and fellow musician from Stockholm (where he was organist and Kapellmeister), though of German descent. An earlier Düben (Andreas, who lived from 1555 to 1625) worked as organist at St Thomas, Leipzig.
Yes, North German music of the seventeenth century does have something of a hothouse feel to it but it is far from incestuous, or inward-looking. It is in fact concentrated and shot through with slowly evolving complex commitment to the confessional ideas and ideals that evolved from the Reformation and in the teeth of the Thirty Years War (1618 - 1848). Buxtehude's greatest works (of which this is one) distill and concentrate his religious and broader spiritual convictions into music of great effect and perhaps even greater affect. Here Koopman and his forces are fully behind every nuance and hint at feeling.
It's important to note that for all its devotional thrust and tone, Buxtehude's
Membra Jesu nostri is not a conventional liturgical work as such. Rather it is a setting of mystical poetry somewhat akin - though in a much more subdued tone - to the approach which, say, the 'Song of Songs' takes to adoration and sacred love.
Buxtehude's tempi, restraint in instrumental textures and even unassuming architecture and musical structure must be respected. This is not a glowing, backlit spectacle. It's a meditation. And Koopman and his soloists fully understand this. Both Wohlgemuth and Martens are typically adept - though the others are exemplary. The performers are all collaborating; there is nothing operatic and any drama is subdued. They are all also aware of the advantages of a careful balance between such contemporary liturgical priorities on the one hand and, on the other, the weight of responsibility to make this exceptional work sound both approachable and … special. They achieve that balance completely here.
The trick seems to have been that Koopman's interpretation does not merely 'sound' exceptional. The seven cantatas are each brought to life by familiarity with their texts, their origins, with the musical technicalities and details, with the interpretative challenges, the need for contrast yet importance of wholeness; and by knowing so well the way Buxtehude thought. Lastly there is a healthy dose of veneration. They are then melded into a beautiful and fragile yet enduring whole, which is quite remarkable.
In some ways, the more formal aspects of the construction of the texts and corresponding music would suggest a lack of exploration, of experimentation and of not straying very far from the music's obvious heart. However this is music by Buxtehude, who knew his milieu as well as, presumably, he knew contemporary and even likely future audiences. Limitations to the composer were not so much challenges as structural strengths from which great excursions could be, and were, made.
Membra Jesu nostri is strangely outward-looking in its pondering on the subject: life after evident death, perhaps.
Again, Koopman, his soloists and accompanying players achieve just the right interpretative balance between what Buxtehude wrote and what inspired him. The result is that colour is present. This is always deployed for a good and obvious reason: the developing use of keys throughout, the variety of the texts, the contrasts between cantatas.
The fulcrum around which the rest of the cantatas seem to revolve is, understandably, the
Ad cor. Here the singers come together in an almost unbearably intense profusion of honesty and openness - particularly the
Vulnerasti cor meum [tr.25]. The final four movements of
Ad faciem [tr.s 26-29] come almost - though not quite - as a 'relief', a loosening of the tension. This final movement is as much a directed meditation as any other and, at its conclusion, you simply want to sit in silence. This is perhaps before returning to the start of this rock-solid yet highly expressive 55 minute-long CD and experience the inward-looking, though honest, somehow open and never maudlin music again.
The booklet that comes in the slipcase with the single CD contains - as always - helpful context; it includes a look back to the recording Koopman made in the early 1980s (nla, apparently). It explains how far we have come in our understanding of this music since then. It also has the full texts in Latin and English translation. Koopman calls
Membra Jesu nostri a 'masterpiece'. Indeed there are over a dozen and a half recordings thereof currently available. Few have the immediacy, delicacy yet forceful insight of this one, though. Even if you are not collecting Koopman's cycle, you should consider this version very seriously. If you have any of the other CDs and sets in the series, you will not want to miss what this recording exudes: depth, approachability, sense of commitment to the religious values which motivated Buxtehude, as well as intriguing instrumental and vocal textures and impact in their own right.