Updated April 1, 2023 — 12.05pm
Our reviewers cast a critical eye over the biggest performances around town. Membra Jesu Nostri Pinchgut Opera City Recital Hall. April 1. Reviewed by PETER McCALLUM ★★★★★
In 1705, the 20-year-old Johann Sebastian Bach travelled on foot from Arnstadt to Lübeck – about 480km on today’s roads according to Google maps – to hear Dieterich Buxtehude play the organ. It would be worth walking a similar distance to hear Pinchgut Opera’s superb performance under conductor Erin Helyard of Buxtehude’s set of seven cantatas Membra Jesu Nostri. This was nuanced music-making of exquisite grace, sublime flow and expressive beauty where voices and instruments blended to perfection without losing their distinctive warmth or piquancy.
The performance blended voices and instruments to perfection.CREDIT: ANNA KUCERA
That seems almost too pleasurable for a set conceived as an exercise in Lenten piety. Each of the seven cantatas comprises an instrumental “sonata”, a “concerto” for vocal ensemble and instruments (using those words in the early Baroque sense) followed by arias or ensembles and a reprise of the concerto.
Though Buxtehude was Protestant, the words draw on the medieval Latin poem Salve mundi salutare and meditate on parts of Christ’s body. The first (“To the Feet”) establishes spaciousness with recurring long notes followed by decorative imitation. Soprano Alexandra Oomens sang the first aria with a wonderfully bright sound and elegantly turned decoration.
In the second, soprano Lauren Lodge-Campbell’s voice had a sweet silky finish, the melodic lines flowing with natural shape. Bass Andrew O’Connor’s voice in the third had noble richness and tonal depth with darker colours. For the second cantata (“To the Knees”), Helyard led the six instruments in gently pulsating textures, an idea carried over into the concerto and arias. In the first aria, tenor Louis Hurley shaped and tapered with gracious fluency, while in the second, mezzo-soprano Hannah Fraser created a naturally flowing line with softly mellifluous tone.
To start the third cantata (“To the Hands”), violinists Julia Fredersdorff and Karina Schmitz established a mood of dragging pain, carried over beautifully by all five voices in the suspended dissonances of the concerto to create a mood of quiet suppliance. The fourth cantata (“To the Side”) is more vigorous, though Helyard did this without sacrificing the contemplative tone, while in the concerto Ooomens and Lodge-Campbell blended sensuously.
The fifth (“To the Breast”) emphasise gentle softness, while in the sixth (“To the Heart’), the members of the Orchestra of the Antipodes changed to viols to create a texture of quiet sweetness. In the concerto, the voices sustained the emotional centre of the work with glowing sound and imploring phrases. The last cantata (“To the Face’) contains expressive reference to the crown of thorns though opens with broadly flowing lines and ends with an amen enlivened by buoyant cross accents.
Trent Suidgeest provided lighting and projected images of sombre discretion. A subtlety of the performance was the matching of voices with individual instrumental combinations, Oomens with harpist Hannah Lane and Lodge-Campbell with theorbo player Simon Martyn-Ellis, while Laura Vaughan (violone) and Anton Baba (viola da gamba) provided fluent bass.
Helyard conducted from the organ and framed the cantatas with organ Fantasias by Pachelbel. The first drew dwelt on sustained harmonies and the last created a lively link to the final piece Buxtehude’s Laudate, Pueri Dominum with gloriously flowing sequences from Oomens and Lodge-Campbell. Membra Jesu Nostri is popular among early music ensembles for its humble expressive richness though you would have to walk further than Bach to find a better performance than this.