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20.9.07

Les Voix Baroques: Buxtehude Tricentenary

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Buxtehude, Membra Jesu nostri patientis sanctissima, Les Voix Baroques
(released September 25, 2007)
When Mel Gibson released The Passion of the Christ, there was a lot of outcry about the violence of the film: why would anyone take such delight in the suffering of Jesus? As I and others commented at the time, the suffering body of Jesus has been the focus of ecstatic reverence in art for centuries. The devotional poem Salve mundi salutare (Hail, salvation of the world) was a collection of stanzas focused on the parts of the savior's body hanging on the cross. In more recent editions, the parts are reduced to seven -- feet, knees, hands, side, chest, heart, and face -- but in medieval sources the poems by Bernard of Clairvaux, Arnulf van Leuven, and others were supplemented by additional parts known only in a few manuscripts.

Membra Jesu Nostri:
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Monteverdi Choir (Gardiner)


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Bach Collegium Japan (Suzuki)


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The Sixteen (Christophers)


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Concerto Vocale (Jacobs)
If the poem is a literary reflection on the Vir dolorum (Man of Sorrows), Dietrich Buxtehude created a musical counterpart when he selected parts of the poem to make a libretto for a cycle of seven brief cantatas, which he called Membra Jesu nostri patientis sanctissima (The most holy body parts of our suffering Jesus, 1680). It is a strange quirk of history that the Lutheran church, for which this music was composed, has in the last century (especially in the United States) abandoned the use of crucifixion images in many churches.

Buxtehude's musical style is based on fairly simple idioms, a late Renaissance and early Baroque combination of homophonic and contrapuntal textures. The setting is most effective at marshalling a careful control of dissonance for words evoking pain. The work is not exactly unknown, actually something of a choral favorite, and there is no shortage of recordings (of which the four best are shown at right). This new recording by the Montreal-based Les Voix Baroques, under the direction of countertenor Matthew White, cannot be considered more worthy than any of those. (The good news is that it costs less than almost all of them: only the Jacobs recording is truly discounted, at $6.97 at the time of writing.) The instrumental accompaniment is subtle, with two violins, as many as four violas da gamba, and a continuo group featuring both theorbo and organ.

It is a lovely if not essential recording, about which American baritone Thomas Meglioranza wrote in January that he was involved "on shortish notice" in the sessions near Montreal (see the photo of the church of Saint-Augustin, where the recording was made). This may account for the occasional sense that the group of five singers is not quite at unity. In many passages, the ensemble and intonation are spot on, although some of the voices become a little brittle in solo sections. The Latin vowels are highly individualized at times, although to say that there is a standard pronunciation of Latin is to ignore the universality of the language. Considering how widely recorded this piece is, what could possibly explain that we have yet to review a live performance of Membra Jesu nostri in the history of Ionarts? (In fact, the last Buxtehude reviewed was in 2004.) One of the choral groups of Washington will hopefully heed my call, instead of doing yet another Bach passion (as wonderful as they are) this spring. In fact, Buxtehude died on May 9, 1707, making this his 300-year anniversary: where is all the Buxtehude?

ATMA Classique ACD2 2563

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