Membra Jesu Nostri
St Bede's Church, Carlisle
17 March 2012
Having recently moved to Carlisle, life is full of new discoveries; new places, new friends and new music. I can, with hand on heart, say that the introduction to the Wordsworth Singers has been a highlight amongst the newness.
I was fortunate enough to be amongst the audience at a performance of Buxtehude's Membra Jesu nostri, a work new to me, in the resonant and movingly appropriate setting of St Bede's Church, Wigton Road. The work, written in 1680 to Latin poetry ascribed to Arnulf of Louvain (d.1250) is in seven contrasting movements or cantatas, each addresses a part of Christ's body and begins with a biblical quotation. The colourful paintings behind the altar depicting scenes from Christ's life were therefore the perfect backdrop to 'a very personal meditation on the suffering of Christ and a very public profession of Faith and confidence in the salvation of mankind'.*
The piece, often called the first Lutheran oratorio, is exquisitely engaging in the perfect marriage of text with the vocal and instrumental writing. Each cantata has an instrumental introduction which the voices join seamlessly. There is much variety in the vocal and instrumental settings. At its full complement in Cantata VI the instrumentation is for a five part Consort of Viols and Continuo. We hear exposed writing for one or three voices and full choral settings of up to 5 parts. We hear wonderfully complex rhythms and spine tingling dissonances and resolutions.
This piece was given by musicians who were completely committed to it and who expressed themselves in myriad instrumental and vocal colours. The instrumental playing was enthralling throughout, especially the dialogue between the two violinists, Anna Östberg and Katie-Bethan Holmes. The solos and ensemble singing were at times moving in their elegant beauty and at other times affecting in their strength. Particularly touching for me was the singing of Julie Leavett and Fiona Weakley in Cantata VI To the heart - You have wounded my heart, my sister, my bride, you have wounded my heart. From Song of Songs, the pathos was expressed through sensitive and refined singing.
Within the finely balanced full choir, the many textures and colours were executed with carefully judged energy. There were memorable moments of the most glorious sound from the women's voices alone and within the most complex polyphony from the men and women were clear and rich lines. This full sound which was at the same time delicate was shown to full effect in VII To the face - Let your face shine upon your servant, save me in your mercy, where appropriately enough, the sound from the sopranos was wonderfully shiny. The joyful final Amen was luscious, and exciting with its 'outrageous cross rhythms'.*
Mark Hindley led both singers and instrumentalists from the chamber organ, with a fine, understated subtlety. An organ solo by Sweelinck played in each half of the concert by Mark gave space to meditate on the music and surroundings, bringing the singing into relief.
Generous applause showed the depth of the audience's appreciation for a wonderful evening of music making. I left light of step, having experienced a first which will definitely not be a last.
* from Mark Hindley’s programme notes