Sound Samples & Downloads
Dietrich BUXTEHUDE (c.1637-1707)
Membra Jesu nostri (BuxWV 75) [65:15]
Laudate, pueri, Dominum (BuxWV 69)* [4:56]
Matthias WECKMANN (c.1616-1674)
Kommet her zu mir alle** [8:42]
Elin Manahan Thomas*, Emma Kirkby* (soprano), Michael Chance (alto), Charles Daniels (tenor), Peter Harvey** (bass)
The Purcell Quartet, Fretwork
rec. 3-5 December 2009, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, UK. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 0775 [78:56]
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
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 for the most part cannot 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 literally the heart of the cycle. The cyclical character
of this work is underpinned by the keys in which the seven cantatas
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 (c.1629-1690),
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
that 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 reason the playing of the Purcell Quartet and Fretwork
is much better here than in Buxtehude's Membra Jesu nostri.
The booklet includes all texts with translations in English,
German and French.
It is a shame that the main work on this disc doesn't achieve
a really satisfying performance sufficient to explores its depth
of expression. The best recording with solo voices is by Cantus
Cölln (Harmonia mundi).
Johan van Veen