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Recordings

Dietrich Buxtehude: Membra Jesu Nostri
27 Jul 2006

BUXTEHUDE: Membra Jesu nostri

Dietrich Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu nostri is a large-scale Passion work dedicated to the Swedish chapelmaster, Gustav Dübin, in whose notable collection, now at Uppsala, it holds a prominent place.

Dietrich Buxtehude: Membra Jesu Nostri

Cantus Cölln; Konrad Junghänel, Dir.

Harmonia Mundi HMC901912 [CD]

$14.99  Click to buy

The work is based on the medieval hymn, Salve mundi salutare, seven cantos, each of which address a different part of Jesus’ suffering body on the cross. Thus, there is a section devoted to the feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, and face. (The text addressing the face of Jesus is, significantly, the precursor of the well-known Lutheran chorale, O Haupt voll blut und wunden.) Buxtehude’s setting provides, in essence, a cantata for each canto, consisting of a scriptural introduction and conclusion, with a strophic-bass variation form for the medieval poetry comprising the main body of the section. The sources for the scriptural framework are diverse, but in several instances, the texts are taken from the Song of Songs; here, the famously erotic love poetry underscores by allusion the somaticism of the texts and the piety they enshrine.

The music itself is not particularly strong in its evocations. A tremolo sinfonia, bits of chromaticism, the odd ninth chord here and there, and the occasional dissonance do address the affection and meaning of the text, but in a work so specific in its context, these seem rather few and far between. What is there, Cantus Cölln has used in a gratifyingly moving way. And in general, there is much to commend in the overall performance: the ensemble of soloists is well-blended, the solo singing is expressively contoured and sometimes interestingly elastic in its rhythm, and the instrumental forces are compelling in their richness, especially in five-part sonorities.

What seems less successful is the interpretation of some passages where Buxtehude adopts a relatively generic style. For instance, the “bloodstained head, all crowned with thorns . . . [a] countenance soiled with spit” is rendered at a rollicking fast pace, making the compound meter and dotted figures curiously gigue-like. Similarly, the concluding “Amen”—also a compound meter—is strikingly ebullient for the conclusion of a contemplative essay. Shorn of textual associations, the Terpsichorean ebullience may fit the music well—Buxtehude is once again in something of a generic mode here—but given the context of Passiontide, slower tempos here may have imposed a greater gravitas, and that to good effect.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College

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