BUXTEHUDE: Membra Jesu Nostri, Bux WV 75 – Duke Vespers Ens./ Cappella Baroque/ Brian Schmidt – MSR 1530, 56:20 [Distr. by Albany] *****:
Though I grew up only 45 minutes from Duke University, I had never heard any choral music from one of their university or local-affiliated ensembles until I happened to be attending a service at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC where a Duke choir was performing. They were spectacular, for me the highlight of the day’s activities. So now, with this issue of the Duke Vespers Ensemble, and their comrade instrumentalists Cappella Baroque (also founded by Brian Schmidt, Assistant Conductor of Chapel Music at Duke), I am most pleased to assure one and all that the quality has not diminished from my experience 30-odd years ago.
The choir itself consists of approximately 20 members from the Duke and Durham communities, specializing in Renaissance and early Baroque music and other pieces from the 19th century until today. It sings for worship services every Thursday of the academic year and participates in special services throughout the year. They have a fine tonal luster, excellent ensemble precision, and a good feeling for the music at hand.
And what music it is! Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707) is of course the organ virtuoso whom Bach allegedly, while a young man, walked 250 miles from his home church in Arnstadt to Lubeck, where Buxtehude held court with his Abendmusiken series at the Marienkirche five special Sundays a year. He composed in a wide variety of vocal and instrumental styles, and he greatly influenced many composers, including the aforementioned Johann Sebastian.
Membra Jesu Nostri Patientis Sanctissima (The Most Holy Limbs of our Suffering Jesus) is a series of seven cantatas that take as their theme the various wounds suffered by Christ—feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, and face—with texts from the Salve mundi salutare, a medieval hymn whose authorship is questioned. The piece is in Latin, unusual for a Lutheran work of the time but considered proper by the musical cognoscenti, and is outstanding in every way, often called the first Lutheran Cantata—also disputed!
The superb production layout has a series of paintings for each cantata in the full color booklet by artist Robin Sand Anderson, adding a delightful addendum to an already excellent release. This is enthusiastically recommended.