Buxtehude – Membra Jesu intimately performed

Buxtehude’s 1680 work “Membra Jesu Nostri Patientis Sanctissima ” is sometimes referred to as the “first Lutheran oratorio.” While the subject matter (like the Seven Last Words of Christ) tie the parts together, the composition (to my ears) sounds more like seven discreet cantatas. The text is a contemplation of seven members of Christ’s body on the cross — feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heard, and face — and their spiritual significance and symbolism. Buxtehude’s setting is generally somber and introspective, especially the solo arias.

The cantatas all follow the same general outline: Instrumental introduction, opening chorus, arias, closing chorus. But within this constrained framework there’s a lot of variety. Some of the arias are for solo voice, but some are for three voices (and even those are varied in their combinations). One can hear the inspiration for Bach’s early sacred cantatas in these works. If you’re a fan of those, you’ll surely enjoy Buxtehude’s ‘Membra Jesu Nostri.”

The Duke Vespers Ensemble was recorded live in concert, and I think that makes this release even stronger. The natural acoustic of the Duke University Chapel seems right for Buxtehude’s sacred work, providing enough ambient echo to fill the spaces between the notes. And the audience is exception — nary a cough or a rustle throughout the recording!

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