Lyrical art in public at
the MMFA’s Bourgie Hall
Buxtehude : Membra Jesu nostri, performed by the Studio de Musique Ancienne de Montréal
By Luc Archambault
What an immense pleasure it was to reconnect with lyrical art in person… an entire event presented to us by the Bourgie Hall and the Studio de Musique Ancienne de Montréal, made concrete this presentation of the Membra Jesu nostri BuxWV75 cycle (sadly literally translated as “From head to toe”). We know Buxtehude, this seventeenth-century Lutheran from Lübeck, all in austerity and, like Bach, hostile to the ornamental flourishes peculiar to the Baroque period, influenced by Catholicism and decadent papism. This cycle, composed in 1680, has seven cantatas adorning spiritual poems by Bernard de Clairvaux (or at least attributed to him).
These cantatas are articulated as meditations on the wounds of the passion of Christ on the cross, from head to toe (hence the sad translation of the title). A devotional work par excellence of Lutheran music, it deeply illustrates the suffering of Jesus in a contemplative litany that transports the listener to a realm of incomparable recollection, whether he/she is a believer or not.
These cantatas are articulated as meditations on the wounds of the passion of Christ on the cross, from head to toe…
“Any pretense is good for presenting the countless religious compositions generated over the centuries, such as this moving meditation of the sufferings of Christ on the cross composed by Buxtehude for the Holy Days. Whatever the state of our faith, they can be enjoyed today for themselves, in their intrinsic beauty and even in the message they convey” says Andrew McAnerney, musical director of the SMAM.
As for the performance itself, the singers were, for the most part, excellent. Except perhaps for the alto Josée Lalonde, whose voice seemed a bit weak (especially compared to the two sopranos, whose angelic voices were of flawless clarity), and the bass Normand Richard, whose timbre was lost by moment in those of the violins…
What about the architectonics of the ensemble as a whole? The overload of the performers on the garden side (the two sopranos, the two violins, one of the gambists and the poor bass, set back from the other singers), compared to a weak courtyard side (the weak viola, the organ, a magnificent tenor and the other two gambists, not at all present for the entirety of the concert, merely accessory in their usage).
It felt almost like a painful imbalance, given my ideal listening position (right in the middle of the last row, in this dotted audience). Besides, wouldn’t Normand Richard have been better placed on the courtyard side, moving him far from these two violins with such a powerful timbre? And the two young gambists, whose role was more than incidental, would they have not been better placed on either side of the stage, as a penultimate addition to the whole?
‘Whatever the state of our faith, they can be enjoyed today for themselves, in their intrinsic beauty and even in the message they convey.’
The rebirth of concertante reality
It should be noted that the few caveats regarding the optimal placement of the performers did not diminish the telluric happiness resulting from this concert. The power of some of the performers (the two sopranos, the two violins and the gambist Suzie Napier) was able to raise the ensemble beyond expectations.
Perhaps this is due to the rebirth of concertante reality (weren’t we in serious need of such music therapy?), but whatever the case, this interpretation of the austere Buxtehude has truly been able to fill a lack. With such gusto, an unrelenting addiction is certainly not hard to imagine.
Images: Courtesy of Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal
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Le Studio de Musique Ancienne de Montréal (SMAM), founded in 1974 by Christopher Jackson, Réjean Poirier and Hélène Dugas, occupies a prominent place in the musical world of both Québec and Canada. Known for its “enveloping textures and its luminous bewitching tones”, it is under the musical direction of Andrew McAnerney, and consists of an ensemble of between 12 and 18 singers. The SMAM has devoted itself mainly to the vocal repertoire since 1998. It has performed hundreds of works ranging from the Renaissance to the Baroque, attested masterpieces as well as little-known or forgotten pieces. • www.smamontreal.ca
Luc Archambault, writer and journalist, globe-trotter at heart, passionate about movies, music, literature and contemporary dance, came back to Montreal from an extensive stay in China to pursue his unrelenting quest for artistic meaning.