Buxtehude & Tunder
St Michael’s Church, South Grove, Highgate. 20 February 2016
Buxtehude: Laudate pueri Dominum, Membra Jesu Nostri; Tunder: Dominus illuminatio mea
One of a number of promising young early music groups formed in recent years is Musica Poetica, formed in 2010 by four students of the Royal Academy of Music, but now expandable into a range of sizes to suit the repertoire and led by Oliver John Ruthven. They have reinforced their North London base (they have been part of Hampstead Garden Opera for some time) by starting a series of contrasting concerts (every other month) at St Michael’s, on South Grove, Highgate. They opened the series with a concert of music from the North German masters, Dietrich Buxtehude and his predecessor at the Lübeck Marienkirche (and father-in-law), Franz Tunder. Tunder is usually unfairly overlooked in favour of his successor, but it was he who started the famous series of Lübeck Abendmusik concerts that traditionally took place on the five Sundays before Christmas every year; a tradition that lasted until 1810. They (and the then aging Buxtehude) famously attracted the young Bach in 1705.
They started with Buxtedhude’s Laudate pueri Dominum, written for two sopranos, six gambas and basso continuo, but her performed (to no real ill effect) by four gambas, violone, lute and organ. It is built on a Chiaccona, in this case with an eight bar repeating bass phrase. The instrumental and vocal sections are initially kept reasonably separate, the gambas overlapping the end of the vocal phrases, but later become more integrated. The sound of a consort of bass viols (here with one treble) is characteristic of music of this period in North Germany, and bring a beautifully exotic and sensuous timbre to the music. Despite the small forces, and the sobriety of the accompanying instruments, this is a joyful work. St Michael’s has a good acoustic, albeit nothing like the vast space of the Marienkirche (where pieces like this would almost certainly have been performed from the west-end organ gallery, or one of the galleries constructed nearby specifically for music with the organ. Sadly, as is so often the case, rather than using a gentle stop of what was at the time one of the largest organs in the world, this was accompanied on a little chamber organ; this one being particularly tiny and with rather clattery keys.
Tunder was represented by his Dominus illuminatio mea, similarly a Psalm setting. Composed for five voices, with two violins and continuo, on this occasion with a bass viol, violone, theorbo and the tiddly organ. As with Laudate pueri Dominum, the instruments and voices are generally kept apart, the two violins interspersing interludes between vocal sections. Tunder builds his phrases on the simplest of little motifs, in true Baroque fashion. But, in late Renaissance fashion, he also contrasts high and low voices, and provides some delightful examples of word-painting, notably with his little militaristic flourishes at the mention of the besieging army. I (and, I suggest, Tunder) would have much preferred the cadential flourish to have come from one of the violins, rather than the barely audible little organ.
The concert ended with one of the musical highlights of that era, Buxtehude’s exquisite seven-cantata cycle, Membra Jesu Nostri, each based on different aspects of Christ’s body, working its way up from the featuring a range of solo and combined voices. Often performed in a rather underpowered and overly-reflective mood, it was good to hear some more forthright singing and playing, as so often befits the texts. Even in the famous sixth cantata, Ad Cor, ‘To the Heart’ with its viol consort accompaniment, had a real sense of power in the appropriate passages. All the other cantatas use two violins and continuo, and the change to the viol consort for the sixth cantata (and back again for the concluding cantata) needs to be done seamlessly, ideally leaving the same gap as had been left between the other cantatas. On this occasion the gap was far too long, and broke the spell.
The Musica Poetica instrumentalists were on excellent form, notably the violinists Claudia Norz and Dominika Fehér, two very promising young musicians that I have reviewed favourably before. Of the five singers, I much preferred the lower voices of Felicity Turner, Peter Harris and Christopher Webb (A, T, B). The two sopranos, although with potentially very attractive voices, displayed the sort of relatively mild, but nonetheless persistent and dominating, operatic vibrato that plays havoc with intonation and so often just makes the poor singers sound nervous. I have a lot of sympathy with sopranos, as any vibrato is more obvious than in lower voices. Singers’ professional training usually results in their voices being unnecessarily forced, thereby generating a difficult to control vibrato. But it really does not work for early music (nor, in my view, for much of the later repertoire), unless it can be sufficiently controlled to be used as an occasional ornament. But learning to control it can take years, if it happens at all.
There are several groups with the same name of Musica Poetica, but this one’s website can be found here.