No-one is certain of the original performing circumstances of Buxtehudes masterpiece, Membra Jesu Nostri, an impassioned meditation on the body of the crucified Christ the seven cantatas are separate entities, but also flow from one to another in order with complete smoothness. Thus, the Retrospects division of the work, separating the first four from the last three with two instrumental lamentations and an interval was an unusual, but not dissatisfying take.
With only one voice per part and one melody instrument per part, especially with a group of the pedigree of the Retrospects, this ought to have been a serene and contemplative experience, even for those who might not subscribe to the religious aspect of the work. However, it took a long time for things to settle among the small team, and even when they did, there were continual moments of uncertainty and untidy ensemble.
Despite all being hugely experienced solo and consort singers, there were only rare moments of complete cohesion and unanimity of thought. Normally, I would consider focusing on a point such as the use of German Latin over Italian Latin pronunciation rather a finicky thing to bring up in a review, but the over-exaggeration of the Germanic consonants failed to obscure the wildly different vowel-sounds being produced, and grated all evening long.
To be fair, there were delightful moments: the baritone Ben Davies was extremely impressive, his warm, firm sound anchoring the consort and ringing out in his arias; sopranos Julie Cooper and Ildik Allen struggled at first to blend, but by the second cantata and their trio with Davies, their voices were soaring effortlessly.
However, these were but brief, passing highlights. Coopers tendency to swoop up to notes made for messy starts to phrases throughout, and languorous diction pulled the tempo around uncomfortably. Tenor Richard Rowntree was far too forceful and present throughout, cutting through the ensemble and drowning out countertenor Ian Aitkenhead when the two were in the same register. Worst of all, I never had the impression at any point in the evening that any of the singers knew intimately the meaning of the text he or she was singing there were obvious dwellings on important words, but little sensitivity otherwise to the mystical beauty of the Biblical and medieval texts.
Thankfully, the instrumental ensemble, led from the organ by Retrospect director Matthew Halls, was on excellent form. Violinists Daniel Edgar and Nia Lewis played with Buxtehudes melodic lines gracefully and elegantly, almost competing with their seemingly impromptu ornaments, and Edgars virtuosic turns in Schmelzers Lamento sopra la morte di Ferdinande III and Bibers Balletti lamentabili were thrilling and expertly judged. It was a shame (and this, I admit, is a small quibble) that (presumably for reasons of expenditure) the two violists who played in the Schmelzer and Biber then took the viola da gamba parts in the sixth cantata of the Buxtehude while they were faultless, I missed the sinewy, visceral sound of gambas in the middle of the texture of that heart-wrenching movement.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org