Cantus Cölln / Konrad Junghanel

Buxtehude: Membra Jesu Nostri

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Membra Jesu Nostri (The Limbs of our Lord Jesus) is the single largest and most compelling of the 110 or so sacred vocal works left us by Dutch-German master Dietrich Buxtehude. Buxtehude is better known for his organ music and is rightfully acknowledged as a formative influence on Johann Sebastian Bach. However, Buxtehude's vocal output is slightly larger than that for organ, and he was a key player in the refinement of the German sacred concerto into what we now call the sacred cantata, which he and his wife inherited from its creator and his predecessor, Franz Tunder, in the town of Lübeck. In the years following Buxtehude's death in 1707, German composers of all kinds were gainfully employed writing cantatas in the thousands, Georg Philipp Telemann produced nearly 2,000 of them on his own. All of Bach's cantatas have been recorded, multiple times, but those of Buxtehude have hardly been approached by scholars, performers, publishers, and recording companies alike.

The Buxtehude work in this genre that seems to have gained some traction is the Membra Jesu Nostri, actually a collection of seven Passion cantatas, each averaging about eight minutes in length. Buxtehude addresses each cantata to a different limb on the body of the Lord, starting at the feet and moving up to the head. Rather than being a kind of musical mortuary, as this description might suggest, Buxtehude's music is a king's ransom of vocal beauty, moving at times in descending, parallel sequences that resemble pop music-styled harmonic movement, of the kind likewise associated with Bach.

This recording by the Cantus Cölln, under the direction of Konrad Junghanel, is one of the most persuasive and moving of the half-dozen or so of this work that have been made, and that is in some pretty elite company, as some of the other recordings are by Masaaki Suzuki, René Jacobs, and John Eliot Gardiner. It would be foolhardy to say that this Membra Jesu Nostri on Harmonia Mundi is better or worse than the ones by these other heavy hitters. Nonetheless, Junghanel and Cantus Cölln turn in a very good performance that melts like butter in key harmonic transitions and never presents any hard edges that might foul the mood. Whomever one chooses to deliver Buxtehude's Membra Jesu Nostri, he/she should get to know it as soon as possible -- many may well wonder what they ever did without it.

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