Buxtehude: Membra Jesu nostri

Floral design

The Chapel Choir of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, Orpheus Brittanicus, Newe Vialles, directed by Andrew Arthur
70:17
Resonus RES 10238

It is often the context of the music-making that distinguishes its character, and the near ideal conditions of a choir of young singers (helped by performing in the excellent acoustic of Jesus College) together with a quintet of singers who share that background and the strings, lute and keyboard of Orpheus Britannicus, joined by the Newe Vialles viol consort in the subdued Part 6 (Ad Cor) provide a very coherent group of musicians for this tense, yet restrained masterpiece of early German Baroque oratorio.

I admire the overall sound – there are no prima donnas here, nor the sense that this is just another routine performance. The intensity of it all is maintained by the experienced and capable direction of Andrew Arthur, as is the sense of the different chori – well laid out in the structure of the work as it is in the performance. His scholarly and helpful essay is a key element in the liner notes, revealing where and how Anders von Düben transcribed this work from its tablature original of 1680 into staff notation. This is complemented by a revealing note on the Latin text by Francis Basso, which is then given with an English translation. Details of pitch, instruments and tuning complete a model booklet.

The major decision for anyone directing Membra Jesu nostri is whether to use single voices throughout or to use a choir as well as a group of solo singers. Using a choir of bright, young voices and placing the instruments and single voices in the foreground gives a good balance and a clean distinction between the two vocal groups. The choir sings with conviction and clarity, no individual voices stand out to spoil the cohesion and they reflect their director’s precision and their regular experience of singing in the small Chapel at Trinity Hall. This is ideal.

The singers charged with solo lines sing well with each other in the duet and trio sections while retaining their own individuality. Nicholas Mulroy’s distinctive voice never has to over-sing, and Daniel Collins is a good match for him in tone and intensity. His leading of the almost Purcellian moments with their tightly wrought suspensions like the trio sections towards the end of Ad Manus (which were given to the solo singers, unlike the SSA passage at the opening of the final tutti section: I love it, but why?) gave these moments a richness that made me wonder about using the choir at all: the ATB sound is so rich! It was perfect in sit tamen gustatis in Ad pedes, the first number where the choir is tacet. To hear Reuben Thomas on his own you have to wait for Ave verum templum Dei where he sings with the strings – the effortlessness of his bottom notes is miraculous.

Eloise Irving, the first soprano, sings beautifully, with a clarity and grace to which Charlotte Ives responds with a warmer tone; in the duet and trio sections, the contrasting tone colour (unlike the identical tone of S1 and S2 in the choir) offers a genuine contrast, and helps colour the words, which all five solo singers enunciate with exemplary clarity. The choir might have copied this – especially in the homophonic quasi-parlando sections – to advantage. The obvious benefit of a many-voices choir is demonstrated in the long, seamless, fluid lines of the final Amen.

The strings are perfect: I have never heard the Sonata in tremulo in Ad Genua so beautifully detailed by the violins, and the reedy quality of the bass violin is a perfect complement in this music. Their wonderful relaxed cross rhythms in the opening to Ad Latus are a model for how to play this brief sonata.

The viols in Ad Cor made a dark contrast, introducing the SSB vocal complement for this number with its rich chromatic suspensions and a piano end like BWV 106. Their reedy tone is not dissimilar to the sudden change to a regal and trombones in the underworld in L’Orfeo. There is such wonderful variety of mood and expression in this pioneering work, and we should be glad that it has received such skilled and musical a treatment. If you want a recording to complement a six-voice performance, I recommend this CD wholeheartedly; and in its own right it is a fine advertisement for this director and his college choir.

David Stancliffe