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  • Sandra Bowdler

Sublime performance of Buxtehude's Membra Jesu Nostri by Pinchgut Opera in Melbourne

By Sandra Bowdler, 06 April 2023


With over 30 commercial recordings of Dietrich Buxtehude's sublime Membra Jesu Nostri, it is surprising that it is performed so rarely, in Australia at least. As might be expected, this outing from Sydney’s Pinchgut Opera company reached a very high standard, seen here in Melbourne. Dietrich Buxtehude, while not exactly a household name, is famous by association, firstly with JS Bach who is supposed to have walked 400km (250 miles) through a German winter to hear him play the organ in Lübeck. Secondly, Handel and his contemporary and (more or less) friend Johann Mattheson competed to be his successor as the Kapellmeister of the Lübeck Marienkirche, but both apparently resiled from the traditional requirement of marrying Buxtehude’s daughter.

Pinchgut Opera's Membra Jesu Nostri © Albert Comper

Buxtehude, then, was of the preceding musical generation to Bach and Handel, and this masterpiece was composed in 1680. It comprises a cycle of seven cantatas, each addressed to a different part of the body of the suffering Christ on the cross; its full title is Membra Jesu nostri patientis sanctissima (The most holy limbs of our suffering Jesus). The core of the text is from a 13th-century poem Salve mundi salutare by Arnulf von Löwen, and is very medieval in sensibility, while the music is more typically north German 17th-century Baroque. Each cantata is introduced by a biblical passage, and these were projected above the stage in English, but there was no running translation as such (and it was hardly necessary). There were also rather shadowy projections of the relevant body parts, and, at one point, a bunch of grey-scale roses. The hall was darkened for the performance, with the singers and musicians spotlit, making an atmospheric chiaroscuro. The original vocal scoring of Membra is for two sopranos, an alto, tenor and bass and, in this case, the tutti sections were sung by the soloists, that is, there was no separate choir. The prescribed instrumentalists are two violins and a violone with basso continuo (not specified), but for part VI (Ad cor), Buxtehude calls for a consort of viols. This performance (somewhat remarkably) followed these instructions. The continuo comprised a theorbo (Simon Martyn-Ellis, also tenor viol), a viola da gamba (Anton Baba), chamber organ and, perhaps most unusually, a harp (Hannah Lane). The ensemble was led by Pinchgut’s unfailingly excellent Erin Helyard from the organ, and the violins comprised Julia Fredersdorff (also treble viol) and Karina Schmitz (tenor viol) with Laura Vaughan, violone and viola da gamba.

Pinchgut Opera's Membra Jesu Nostri © Albert Comper Vocal honours – and I mean honours – were shared by a fine quintet of Australian singers. Probably best known would be Alexandra Oomens, now based in London, whose pure yet richly coloured soprano voice led the group. Second soprano Lauren Lodge-Campbell, also established in London, is not perhaps quite yet as fully formed vocally as Oomens, but produced lovely phrasing and accuracy. Hannah Fraser, making a name for herself in Italy, was equally impressive, with confident low notes. Tenor Louis Hurley produced very finely focused clarion tone, and Andrew O’Connor contributed a resonant bass. The evening was structured into a single whole with no interval, the main work being prefaced by Pachelbel’s Fantasia in G minor on the chamber organ segueing directly into Ad pedes. After the last cantata, Ad faciem(to the face), with its dancing last SSATB aria and “Amen”, Helyard regaled us with another, rippling Pachelbel Fantasia (A minor), leading into a final Buxtehude vocal piece, the psalm setting Laudate, Pueri, Dominum with the two sopranos providing a radiantly sunny conclusion, highlighted by a projection of a field of flowers against a blue sky. A totally rewarding event. *****

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