Another recording of Membra Jesu nostri! Dieterich Buxtehude: Membra Jesu nostri (Opus Arte oa cd9023 d, issued 2014, 62′) features The Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford, directed by Daniel Hyde, with soloists John Mark Ainsley, Robin Blaze and Giles Underwood, and viol consort Phantasm (together with an unnamed instrumental ensemble). Readers of Early Music will be able to look back at several previous reviews of Buxtehude’s most popular vocal piece, including my own review in 2009 (xxxvii/1, pp.132–5) which looked in particular at the question of the deployment of solo and choral voices, and which also considered earlier releases from Ton Koopman’s Opera Omnia series discussed below. This new recording is greatly to be welcomed into the fold, being unusual in that it emanates from an English choral foundation. Although the liner notes do not reveal the fact, the institutional nature of the recording is crucial to its existence. Scholarship and performance have the potential to live constructively side-by-side in university environments such as this; the three main soloists are all former choir members at Magdalen, either as boy or man, the leader of the viol consort Phantasm, Professor Laurence Dreyfus, is now Fellow Emeritus, and the writer of the sleeve notes, Dr Bettina Varwig, is a former Research Fellow at the college. However, whilst the institution is relevant in that the recording gives us a comparatively rare opportunity to hear the music sung throughout by boy trebles, what matters is that these boys under Daniel Hyde sing with great verve and expression, and convey the extensive Latin poetry of the cycle as if they are spending most of their time between practice and Evensong digesting Kennedy’s Revised Latin primer. In the seemingly breathless aria style, as encountered in much Roman music of the period, the temptation of having several boys sing the arias together must have been to stagger the breathing, but Hyde importantly still allows time between the phrases so the metre of poetry comes across effectively. In another recent recording using boys involving the Knabenchor Hannover (Harald Weiss: Requiem (Rondeau: rop7008/09, issued 2014, 89′), solo women sopranos are nevertheless used for the solo and ensemble verses, whereas all are taken in the Magdalen performance by the boys. The addition of three experienced soloists singing the ATB solos and ensembles alongside a choir of boys and undergraduate men works well since none of them over-sing, and Robin Blaze in particular is very at home in this repertory, but the fact that they do not sing in the tutti sections as part of the choir inevitably gives a particular slant on the nature of the music that might not please all listeners. The alternative approach would of course have been to follow 17th-century practice and use soloists from within the choir, though this may not have been feasible for whatever reason. When this pattern inevitably occurs in Part III given the lack of separate soprano soloists, the result is superb, especially as Hyde selects three boys to sing the wonderful SSA ‘Quid sunt plagae istae’ phrase. The instrumental playing from the single-player ‘orchestra’ is excellent and the different styles of the sonatas are well differentiated and characterized. Sixteen-foot string pitch is employed to give weight to the tutti sections, and when the viols appear in Part VI the organ and theorbo continuo both drop out which helps maximize the contrast of sound at this point. However, given the saturated market for good recordings of the work, the reason to consider this one in particular is without doubt the fine treble singing. The tenth CD to appear in the imaginative series from the London collective The Bach Players is Buxtehude, Dieterich; Bach, Johann Sebastian; Erlebach, Philipp Heinrich: Sleepers awake! ‘Wachet auf’ (Hyphen Press Music 010, issued 2016, 73′), directed by violinist Nicolette Moonen. It contains two settings of this chorale by Buxtehude and Bach’s setting from 1731, plus Buxtehude’s chaconne aria Quemadmodum desiderat cervus and instrumental sonatas by Buxtehude (Buxwv266) and Erlebach (no.6 in F). Both Bach’s Wachet auf and Erlebach’s sonata feature the violin piccolo, and it is very good to have a detailed account of the instrument by Moonen in the liner notes in which she considers Bach’s probable reasons for using the instrument in this particular piece, as well as explaining her decision for excluding the use of 16′ string pitch from the recording as a whole. Both organ and harpsichord are used in the splendid sonata by Buxtehude in which chromaticism and stylistic freedom appear as a welcome change after the simple exuberance of the opening Wachet auf setting, Buxwv101, though the organ seems rather close in comparison with the harpsichord. The second setting, Buxwv100, has much more substance, though I found the instrumental playing a little subdued at times here, so that when, for example, the strings are called upon to imitate the call of the night-watchman in rising chords, the approach is light and delicate rather than bright and urgent, though things pick up for the arrival of the bridegroom. Singers and players alike take a fairly cautious approach to ornamentation, even at the conclusion of the piece where long held notes and repeated cadential formulas might well suggest some licence. There is a good rapport between singers and players when musical ideas are bounced to and fro between them, though such moments highlight the strings being slightly recessed in the sound compared with the singers. My preference would be to give something close to equal acoustical prominence for the voices and instruments in repertory such as this, since the latter are in effect singing the text through their music which is often identical to the sung lines. The violin piccolo is heard first in the splendid Erlebach sonata, in which the viola da gamba played by Reiko Ichise shares an equal role with the violin, and then features in Bach’s extended chorale setting. Moonen suggests that the sound of the piccolo is ‘unworldly’, and this is beautifully captured in the first of the two duets. The singing is delightful throughout, though to my ears slightly under-characterized, whether it is the presentation of the chorale by the tenor, or some local features in the arias such as the E♮/E♭ shift on ‘scheiden’ in the soprano part. The one-per-part forces and lack of 16′ provide a welcome change to many other performances of the work on CD. There are times when the ensemble could have been tighter, but I particularly enjoyed the instrumental sonority captured in ‘Zion hört die Wächter singen’. The final release of Ton Koopman’s 20-volume Opera Omnia series of the music of Buxtehude was issued in 2014, and this round-up includes the vocal music on volumes XVII–XX, containing seven CDs recorded in 2012–13: Dieterich Buxtehude: Opera Omnia XVII: Vocal works 7 (Challenge Classics cc72256, issued 2013, 147′), Opera Omnia XVIII: Vocal works 8 (Challenge Classics cc72257, issued 2013, 135′), Opera Omnia XIX: Vocal works 9 (Challenge Classics cc72258, issued 2014, 79′) and Opera Omnia XX: Vocal works 10 (Challenge Classics cc72259, issued 2014, 154′). In the introduction ‘About this recording’ to volume XX, Koopman rightly thanks the many people involved in this magnificent project, fittingly dedicated In Memoriam Bruno Grusnick, including all the musicians, administrators, engineers, and of course the many sponsors who made the whole project possible. Crucial characteristics of these performances already noted in earlier reviews include the use of high pitch, the occasional use of additional cappella forces, and the generally elaborate style of continuo performance. There are again isolated moments when the high pitch seems uncomfortable for the singers, both soloists and choir, such as the soprano soloist in Jesu, meiner freuden Meister (in which only two out of original 25 strophes of text are sung) or the bass in Surrexit Christus hodie (who is called upon to sing modern-pitch g′), but there are gains as well in terms of the overall brightness of the sound and the many vocal passages that suit the singers well. Koopman uses six different sopranos across the seven CDs but the same alto, tenor and bass throughout (apart from in one piece which has two tenor parts). The contrasting soprano voices are a bonus, and although the lower soloists are all very fine, greater variety here would have also been welcome, given the sheer quantity of music involved. The addition of the Amsterdam Baroque Choir as a ripieno force certainly adds variety, though benefits to individual pieces are not always clear. The title-page of the source of Accedite gentes, for example (a work of doubtful authenticity), reads ‘CCATB Con 2 violini e 2 ripieni si piace’. In fact there are four string ripieno parts so that the violins are doubled at tutti passages as well. Adding a cappella, even if not specified on the title-page, has some justification of course, but we lose the chance to hear the five soloists singing in ensemble, this sonority being replaced by the comparative wall of sound provided by 20 professional singers. Similarly, I am not sure what is gained by adding ATTB choral forces to Ecce nunc benedicite Domino, the only work on the final two-CD set vol.XX that features a choir. Again the source seems to refer to additional string parts (one of which survives) rather than vocal parts. The continuo realizations are provided mostly by Ton Koopman on the organ (occasionally by Kathryn Cok, a former pupil of Koopman) and Mike Fentross on the lute. We hear the organ and the lute together in many pieces, but there is also some well-judged variety in the way they are deployed separately. Koopman’s articulation is light and energizing throughout (compare with more legato approach found on the Magdalen recording) and his invention seemingly endless, even if numbers are freely added to the original figured-bass parts to spice up the harmony here and there; Fentross also dazzles with his imaginative playing and he introduces a fair degree of chordal strumming in certain places that complements Buxtehude’s lively rhythms, though I remain unconvinced about adding much detail within an expressive chordal string-tremolo section, as in Führwar, er trug unsere Krankheit. The individual CDs present a pleasing variety of works, and Christoph Wolff is careful to make comment in his liner notes about all the individual pieces on each CD, giving just the right balance between basic description and highlighting points of interest, categorizing them all as best as can be achieved given the fluidity of the genre. The recorded sound and balance between voices and instruments is first rate. Whilst Koopman’s performances are never dull, there are some pieces in which his energy and drive are arguably misplaced. In particular, the music composed and published in memory Buxtehude’s father, forming Buxwv76, is given performance speeds that do not to my ears match the gravitas both of the texts being set and the nature of the music itself. There is little time to appreciate Buxtehude’s learned counterpoint on the chorale Mit Fried und Freud. Or, to take another example, the Last Supper has rarely sounded as much as fun as it does in this performance of verse 3 of Pange lingua gloriosi. There is another problem with Buxwv76 in that the Klag-Lied is sung by the alto, forcing him extremely high when surely one of the sopranos involved would have been more suitable. One characteristic of the repertory is the use of echoes, and this feature seems at times rather under-emphasized by singers and instrumentalists alike. Moreover the piano and then pianissimo at the end of the ritornello of the wedding aria Gestreuet mit Blumen seems to have been considered an error (or a modern editorial decision), yet the dynamics appear in the Lübeck edition of 1675. There are of course many delights to be found across the CDs in terms of both the pieces themselves and their performances. Buxtehude’s contribution to the great Lübeck school of gamba playing is one, in works such as Gen Himmel zu dem Vater mein played here by one of the players listed, Cassandra Luckhardt or Bob Smith. It is also very good to hear the recently discovered part of a wedding aria, a six-part canon (performed here by upper voices and lower instruments), and an exhilarating instrumental gigue (part of Buxwv121). All the vocal soloists have splendid contributions to make, but for me, many of the stand-out performances come from Bettina Pahn, mainly because she takes more risks with the expression, aiming to interpret the texts which so often call for extremes of emotion. When she sings of the shame of her sins in O Clemens, o mitis we are forced to feel this with her. And the combination of her approach to the final section of O dulcis Jesu with excellent work by Koopman and Fentross produces a stunning, even disturbing result (the lute taking over at ‘I die without thee’). Finally, one might note the different approach taken to the presentation of the CDs from the various artists and labels involved. The era of the Great Conductor is alive and well with the Opera Omnia, with Koopman’s name larger than Buxtehude’s on the cover, and the only pictures of people being one of Koopman himself in every booklet. By contrast the director of The Bach Players, Nicolette Moonen, is listed in the same-sized font as the other musicians involved (as befits a ‘collective’) and only appears on the back cover, and the booklet pictures feature all involved. The Magdalen CD perhaps strikes a good balance in this regard, though do we really need a close-up picture of a single boy on the back cover of the booklet? Websites Challenge Classicswww.challenge.nl Hyphen Press Musicwww.hyphenpress.co.uk/music Opus Artewww.opusarte.com © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/open_access/funder_policies/chorus/standard_publication_model)
Early Music – Oxford University Press
Published: May 25, 2018
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