Wednesday 15 March 2023

This is my body: Figure's imaginative rethinking of Buxtehude's intense sung devotion, Membra Jesu Nostri

Buxtehude: Membra Jesu Nostri - Figure at the Swiss Church
Buxtehude: Membra Jesu Nostri - Figure at the Swiss Church
Dietrich Buxtehude: Membra Jesu Nostri; Figure, Frederic Waxman; The Swiss Church, Covent Garden

Buxtehude's intense seven-cantata sequence reinvented as an imaginatively engaging communal experience

Dietrich Buxtehude's Membra Jesu Nostri is a seven-cantata sequence, described by the composer as a sung devotion, written in 1680 and dedicated to the Swedish organist and composer Gustaf Düben (Buxtehude was himself Swedish) whose collection, now in Uppsala University Library, is an important source for Buxtehude's music. Most of Buxtehude's oratorios do not survive, so Membra Jesu Nostri is an important example of his larger-scale writing. The stanzas of its main text are drawn from the medieval hymn Salve mundi salutare, and each cantata addresses a part of Jesus’ crucified body: feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart and face.

It is a strikingly intimate and intense work, one where we have to address its original purpose and how we might perform it nowadays. On Tuesday 14 March 2023, the ensemble Figure, artistic directors Frederick Waxman and Philip Barrett, presented Buxtehude's Membra Jesu Nostri in what might be called a dramatised staging at the Swiss Church in Covent Garden. The five singers were Claire Ward, Katie Macdonald, Tom Lilburn, Michael Bell and Hugo Herman-Wilson accompanied by an instrumental ensemble of Dominika Feher and Emilia Benjamin (violin & treble viol), Emily Ashton (cello & tenor viol), Chris Terepin (bass viol), Kate Brooke (double bass & violone) and Jonatan Bougt (theorbo) directed from the organ by Frederick Waxman. Philip Barrett was the movement directed with lighting by Chris Burr, and animations by Joshua Tabti.

Buxtehude: Membra Jesu Nostri - Figure at the Swiss Church
Buxtehude: Membra Jesu Nostri - Figure at the Swiss Church

When considering modern performances of music of this period, it is worth thinking about whether the original work was intended as an act or as a performance. For the first, the music is part of a wider act, usually liturgical, and in the instance of Bach's Passions the act is communal, many of the performers were Bach's students, and the chorales would be a familiar part of the congregation's worship. By contrast, a performance implies an audience who sit, do not participate and simply listen; Handel's oratorios were performances.

Buxtehude: Membra Jesu Nostri - Figure at the Swiss Church
Buxtehude: Membra Jesu Nostri
Figure at the Swiss Church
In their introduction to the work in the programme book, Waxman and Barrett comment that Buxtehude's piece 'surely demands to be shared in an intimate setting, with little barrier between performer and audience'. At the Swiss Church (which provided an attractive neutral space with a few period elements), the audience was by and large standing with the instrumentalists in the altar alcove. The five singers, all dressed in black and singing from memory, were amongst the audience but sight lines were addressed by having five platforms and having the individual singers often picked out by Chris Burr's dramatic lighting.

There was plenty of movement, and each aria and chorus was given a different set-up, but apart from this, the choreography was minimal, what we experienced was a modern sort of communal act, with the performance taking place in and around us. By and large, the singers were visible when they were singing (I have to confess that I 'cheated' and sat in a seat on a raised platform at the edge of the performance area), and frankly it didn't really matter because as the work flowed, you experienced it in a number of ways.

On one wall, a translation of the text was presented along with an indication of where we were in the structure of the piece, all done with elegant clarity. On the other wall, was a series of animations by Joshua Tabti which provided a different exploration of the different parts of the sacred body.

The result was engaging and involving. The performances from the five singers, Claire Ward, Katie Macdonald, Tom Lilburn, Michael Bell and Hugo Herman-Wilson, were terrific. There was an understated directness to the singing, all with a fine sense of line and a beauty of tone. I could, perhaps, have done with more emphasis on the word rather than line and tone, but this was a genuine attempt to present the music in a coherent modern way. The music also flowed well, so that in each cantata, chorus moved into aria and trio with a naturalness that came from performing the work with just five singers, taking on both chorus and solo responsibilities.

The result was highly communicative, and the moments when singers were near you came over as them singing both to you and for you. The closest I can come to previously experiencing this type of performance is when I attended the National Theatre's Mysteries, its promenade performances of Tony Harrison's adaptation of the Wakefield Mystery Plays which made an overwhelming impression when I saw it in 1977 and 1985. Figure is only doing two performances of This is my body, the second one tonight (15 March 2023) but this imaginative rethinking of Buxtehude's intense sung devotion deserves further performances.

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