Buxtehude: Membra Jesu Nostri. Duke Vespers Ensemble and Cappella Baroque, Brian Schmidt, conductor. MSR Classics MS 1530.

Five years before the birth of J.S. Bach, Diet(e)rich Buxtehude composed in 1680 a cycle of seven cantatas titled Membra Jesu Nostri, meditating on Jesus’ death on the cross; each cantata is addressed to one part of the Lord’s body. The text speaks to each “member” (feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, and face) in Latin cantos by an unknown medieval poet.

While the vernacular German was omnipresent in the Lutheran liturgy of the time, Latin motets and similar works were still used at appropriate seasons of the liturgical year. Michael Lyle’s CD program notes mention Membra… as a possible first Lutheran oratorio, although its text does not fit the classical definition of that form. Each of its seven sections begins and ends with a “concerto” (i.e., using all voices and instruments in concert) with a Biblical text, with three strophes of the medieval poetry, sung by various combinations of solo voices, as arias of meditation.

The CD captures a live performance in Duke University Chapel, achieving a notable balance between the room’s reverberant acoustic and a clarity of sound and diction. The performance is excellent in almost every respect, the more so as a live concert allows no repeated takes. Conductor Brian Schmidt has a sure feel for tempi and for varying the sonorities of his 22 singers and a 13-voice instrumental ensemble known as Cappella Baroque.

The accompanying booklet names all the performers, but does not identify either vocal or instrumental soloists. In general, the female vocal soloists, singing with little vibrato, are more successful in meeting the demands of this very early Baroque music than the men. The choral blend, however, is superb.

A minor yet recurring problem is in evidence at a number of initial downbeats, where the continuo instruments (keyboard and a bass instrument) do not play at exactly the same time. This may well be a problem which was not heard in the room, given its size and reverberant quality, but which was picked up by the closer microphones.

The Duke Vesper Ensemble’s diction is superb, enough to hear that their pronunciation of “mihi” is curiously not that of the Liber Usualis (the definitive guide for pronunciation of liturgical Latin): they sing “me-hee” rather than “me-kee.”

These small details aside, this is a fine performance of a little-known major work of its time and a most welcome addition to the world of recorded music. The choral and instrumental forces are at each other’s service in exemplary music-making, for which conductor Schmidt is to be congratulated.

A visual bonus is present in the CD booklet, which contains a series of acrylic paintings visualizing Membra… by artist Robyn Sand Anderson. These paintings, created for the Duke Vesper Ensemble’s performances of the work, may be seen along with complete texts of the work in the original program, found online here.