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  • Paul Selar

Pinchgut Opera: Membra Jesu Nostri

Australian Arts Review

Paul Selar

Membra Jesu Nostri

Elisabeth Murdoch Hall – Melbourne Recital Centre, Southbank Boulevard, Southbank

Performance: Tuesday 4 April 2023

Regardless of being in the midst of the Christian world’s most sacred week in the liturgical year, the secular world can be afforded the benefits of so much of the artistic musical output composed to celebrate it.

That was the case on Tuesday evening at Melbourne’s Elisabeth Murdoch Hall when the great masters of baroque music from the north, Sydney-based Pinchgut Opera, presented an extraordinary concert performance featuring German composer Dieterich Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri, a cycle of seven cantatas composed in 1680.

Each cantata, with each divided into six sections, addresses a part of Jesus’ crucified body, combining to create a captivating and contemplative landscape as a means of quiet adoration.

Beginning at the feet of Jesus (Ad pedes), the composition moves observance to the knees (Ad genua), then the hands (Ad manus), the side (Ad latus), the chest (Ad pectus), the heart (Ad cor) and completing the cycle at Jesus’ face (Ad faciem) and gorgeous polychromatic amen.

Excellently prepared and executed by Pinchgut Opera Artistic Director Erin Helyard and his chorus of five soloists and six musicians of the Orchestra of the Antipodes, nothing more could have been desired within this spiritual and spatial realm where a slowing heartbeat and meditative breathing became natural responses to a musical and vocal blend of solemn, ethereal and transfixing beauty.

Composed in a form that had emerged in Germany in the 1660s to text drawn from the medieval hymn Salve mundi salutare, the general structure of each cantata consists of an instrumental introduction, a concerto for instruments and five voices, three varied-voiced arias followed by an instrumental ritornello and a reprise of the concerto.

But it is in the intelligent adaptations of its overriding structure that assist in imbuing the work with a sense of sensory stimulation and boundless escape.

Similarly, the subtle changes in tempi of often gentle and long-drawn depiction coax the listener. Added to that, Buxtehude’s many inventive combinations of voice type and instrument accompaniment provide copious engrossing moments. The five individual voices proved to be perfectly primed and exquisitely shaped and their collective sound coalesced with tremendous beauty. There was the lucent and penetrating soprano of Alexandra Oomens, soprano Lauren Lodge-Campbell’s effortless mellifluousness, the elegant and deeply expressive mezzo-soprano of Hannah Fraser, Andrew O’Connor’s strikingly fluid and sonorous bass and the warm, full-bodied tenor of Louis Hurley.

Helyard conducted with pronounced focus from a small centrally placed organ, his movements showing gentle restraint befitting the work. Creating a palette of warm muted colours and balancing every individual part with insightfulness, Helyard was aided expertly by the orchestra. Two violins, a consort of viols including cello, viola da gamba and harp, and a basso continuo of organ, double bass and theorbo expressed their acoustic individuality marvellously under their musician’s will. Standing at the organ, Helyard opened this short but impactful 75-minute concert with Pachelbel’sFantasia in G Minor (P. 128), a sensible and mood-setting choice evoking the ambulatory or incidental nature of church music.

A second Pachelbel fantasia, Fantasia in A Minor (P. 126), bookended Membra Jesu Nostri, with Helyard translating it into a shining filigreed piece demonstrating his dexterous handiwork at the keyboard.

The program concluded with Buxtehude’s Laudate, Pueri, Dominum (BuxWV 69), a plush musical prayer of praise and thanksgiving, complimenting the evening with a succession of divine arrangements characteristic of Buxtehude’s featured work with sopranos Omens and Lodge-Campbell layering both depth and translucency on its pages.

Trent Suidgeest’s lighting and projections contributed enormous atmosphere to the program. Eight stands, each mounted with three lights, arced around the singers, flooding the stage with often candlelight-like glow and accenting the singers superbly.

Rear-projected monochromatic imagery suggestive of each cantata’s part – including roses signifying the heart of Jesus – were most effective. Unfortunately the projected English translation of the sung Latin faded too quickly from sight.

The final image of dainty spring wildflowers as a backdrop for the Laudate, Pueri, Dominum brought about thoughts of the evocation of renewal and symbolic resurrection as a fitting sign of Holy Week’s conclusion.

Now in their fourth year bringing their specialist artistry to Melbourne, Pinchgut Opera look committed to ongoing programming that will hopefully gain momentum as their audience builds. Those who witnessed the divine beauty of Membra Jesu Nostri will hopefully be sharing Pinchgut’s great worth far and wide.


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