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, 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
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.
Reviews of other releases in this series
||Vocal works v1
||Vocal works v2
||Harpsichord works v2
||Organ works v5
||Vocal works v4
||Chamber works v1
||Chamber works v2
||Vocal works v5
||Chamber works v3