Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri consists of seven cantatas,
each a meditation on the wounds of Christ on the Cross. There
are detailed historical notes and some analysis of the music
in Joachim Steinheuer’s booklet notes, but to sum up, here is
music often of the utmost tenderness in simplicity both of instrumentation
and musical content. This is at once both its strength and its
difficulty in performance, with the risk of things sounding
rather samey by the time you reach the end.
There are a few more than decent recordings of this music around.
I have a good deal of time for Masaaki Suzuki’s recording on
BIS, which brings out plenty of drama and contrast with a feeling
of large scale, using a full chorus and soloists to bring out
the best of all that depth and restraint. There is also a Chandos
recording with Emma Kirkby, Michael Chance et al which
is a useful reference (see review),
though one which depends rather on your liking the character
of these particular soloists.
This Accent version led by Sigiswald Kuijken comes across as
quite a different animal to both of these examples. Fans of
the label will know a little of the clean sense of transparency
they can expect from the recording, and the lighter, arguably
thinner texture from the strings of La Petite Bande is apparent
from the outset. With one voice to a part choruses we lack the
sense of heft and contrast from Suzuki’s BIC performance, but
gain in intimacy as a result. The singers are generally good,
though Anne-Katrin Schenk’s Soprano I is one with a
mildly helium-powered colouration – strongest in stratospheric
heights. Gunther Vandeven’s high male alto is a good deal more
neutral than Michael Chance; once again a question of taste.
Tenor Jens Weber is very fine, but even he is pushed to his
limits in Buxtehude’s extreme highs in track 20, Pectus
mihi confer mundum.
This is a performance with many beautiful moments. The Quid
sunt plagae and its preceding Sonata of III.
Ad manus is sublime. There is a delicious way Kuijken obtains
expression and intensity even with this minimum of resources
and a distinct lack of ornamentation, though not an entire lack
of vibrato, which can make all the difference at certain points.
This is however a performance which gives a cooler and more
introverted impression in comparison to the other examples.
Not to say there are not lively moments: the Sicut modo
geniti which opens V. Ad pectus has plenty of
rhythmic verve. There is no feel of dragging or artificially
mannered laying on of expression with the figurative trowel.
If you like your Buxtehude without too much extra character
or unique personality then this will be the one for you. I don’t
mean this as a backhanded criticism, more to point out that
there are few elements here which will prevent you wanting to
come back for repeat listening. It doesn’t generate much excitement,
but this is in the nature of the music. La Petite Band is very
good throughout, but there is a strange moment at the end of
track 6, the Sonata in tremulo. This is taken more
slowly than many versions - an interesting rather than a disappointing
feature, but there is a moment at the end where the bass steadfastly
refuses to follow the ritenuto of the upper strings
and ends up having to skip in an extra note to keep together
in the final chords.
The filler is a very fine five part funerary lamentation, Fried-
und Freudenreiche Hinfahrt, which couples very well with
the cantatas which precede it. These are pieces with exquisitely
wrought counterpoint, and some wonderfully scrunchy dissonant
chromatic clashes to highlight significant words and create
an atmosphere of potent and moving grief. The final Klag-Lied
is a masterpiece, and with some spine-tingling high notes from
the soprano would fit well as part of a Peter Greenaway film
In all I would count this as a successful release, though perhaps
not quite a definitive Membra Jesu Nostri. This is
however a space in which you will always be able to lose yourself
in a world of richly expressive ecclesiastical mourning and
emerge, sadder and wiser, making the playful sunlight of your
day that much brighter and attractive.