This is my Body – Membra Jesu Nostri

This is my body
Buxtehude Membra Jesu Nostri

Figure Ensemble, Frederick Waxman
The Swiss Church, Covent Garden.
15th March 2023

The “forward-thinking historical performance ensemble” Figure gave their impressive thought-provoking interpretation of Dieterich Buxtehude’s 1680 sequence of seven cantata meditations on the body of Christ, Membra Jesu Nostri. They described this as “an immersive, surround-sound performance” which allows the audience to “experience every emotion up close and stand within the Passion scene – in the body of the sound”. The sparse white-washed of the acoustically lively Swiss Church provided the perfect venue. Apart from a few chairs around the edge of the empty space, the audience stood in a space surrounded by four stages and a central platform. The seven instrumentalists were in the apse at the business end of the church. The five singers moved around the space, singing from the five platforms in various groupings. On one side wall was a projection of the texts in English while the other showed evolving drawings based on a statue that survives from Buxtehude’s time in Lübeck’s Marienkirche.

Buxtehude referred to his Membra Jesu Nostri as a devotione decantata (sung devotion) on the Membra Jesu nostri patientis sanctissima (Most Holy Limbs of Our Suffering Jesus). He asks that it be sung “with the humblest devotion of the whole heart”. The seven cantatas are in similar form, with an opening instrumental Sonata, an accompanied Concerto for chorus, three arias for one to three voices, an instrumental interlude and a reprise of the Concerto. The texts use Old Testament verses relevant to the particular body part for the concertos, and selections from the medieval poem Salve mundi salutare for the arias, each directly related to the crucifixion. It is not known when or how it was performed, but I do wonder if it was ever intended to be performed all in one go or, as sometimes suggested, as part of the famous winter Abendmusick series of concerts in the Marienkirche.

The instruments are two violins with a continuo (here cello, bass viol, theorbo, bass and organ), with special mention going to violinists Dominika Fehér and Emilia Benjamin, Chris Terepin, bass viol, and Jonatan Bougt, theorbo. There is an evocative change to the sensuous sound of a consort of viols for the sixth cantata Ad cor (To the heart). Again it is not clear how Buxtehude would have arranged that, but these flexible instrumentalists all changed from their violin family instruments to viols (as in the photo). I liked the use of the bass viol as continuo for most of the arias in the other cantatas.

The music is quite extraordinary, with a wide range of musical styles, all generally within the stylus phantasticus. The singers were Claire Ward (soprano), Katie Macdonald (mezzo), Tom Lilburn (countertenor), Michael Bell (tenor), and Hugo Herman-Wilson (baritone) and, apart from a little too much vibrato from a couple of them, all impressed. Their ability to sing in time and with excellent intonation under the tricky performing conditions was commendable, given the distance between them and the instruments for most of the evening.

Frederick Waxman’s direction from the organ was sensitive, with well-chosen speeds for each of the sections. Others involved in this very professional production include movement director Philip Barrett, lightening from Chris Barr, animations and artwork from Joshua Tabti and movement consultation from Sam Rayner. This is the first time I have heard Figure (a tricky name to Google accurately) perform and look forward to future productions. The audience was also of interest, as it was very different from the usual London early music audience, not least with a sizeable number of younger people, many of whom seemed to know each other. I wasn’t sure if they were connected with the performers or the church, or had just been attracted by the advertising.