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Music: Buxtehude, Membra Jesu Nostri (Temple Church, London)

03 May 2024

Fiona Hook hears the music of Buxtehude


DIETRICH BUXTEHUDE was the foremost organ virtuoso of the generation preceding Bach — so famous that the young Bach walked 200 miles to Lübeck to study with him. As organist at St Mary’s Church, one of northern Germany’s most prestigious posts, he was required to write and perform cantatas for orchestra and chorus as well as organ music.

Membra Jesu Nostri Patientis Sanctissima was written in 1680. Its seven linked cantatas were written not for a church service, but as part of the tradition of devotional performances during Holy Week, to a text in rhythmical Latin verse by Arnulf von Löwen (1200-50). Each section of the mystical meditation on parts of Christ’s body on the cross begins and ends with a quotation from the Old Testament, prefacing aspects of the crucifixion, with the central portion of the cantata consisting of a series of solo verses, joined together by passages for two violins and continuo, or for The Heart, a quartet of viols. We have The Feet, The Knees, The Hands, The Side, The Breast, The Heart, and finally the The Face, ending with a plea that Christ appear at the writer’s death.

As part of the Holy Week Festival at the Temple Church, London, the Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford, all male except for two altos, sang clearly and expressively, bringing out the music’s devotional rather than dramatic elements, but, used to singing in a college chapel, were somewhat overwhelmed by the larger space. Soloists stepped forward from the choir and sang beautifully, both individually and in combination, especially the boy trebles — all credit to their conductor, Magdalen’s Acting Director of Music, Alexander Pott.

Projection was less of a problem for the Oxford Bach Soloists’ instrumental quartet or the New Vialles, their soft and burnished sounds a fitting counterpart to the choir’s gentle reverence.

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