It was a disappointingly small audience that turned up to St Johns, Smith Square for what was, on paper at least, one of the highlights of this years Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music: Cantus Cölln are in the 25th year of their existence, and in that time have established themselves as one of the worlds leading exponents of Baroque vocal music, and of German Baroque music in particular.
Added to this was the allure of a rare performance of Buxtehudes Membra Jesu Nostri, one of the finest sacred works of the 17th century, and often called (and not without justification) the first Lutheran oratorio.
As I remarked in my review of the Retrospect Ensembles performance of Membra Jesu Nostri, given at the Wigmore Hall last month, there is no one set way in which to present the work: it was intended as a devotional, meditative piece, and while the seven cantatas that make it up are separate, they flow smoothly from one to the next. Thus, the concert opened with Buxtehudes extended chorale setting, Herzlich lieb hab ich dich, o Herr, the unison soprano first verse of which seemed to be causing Mechthild Bach and Gudrun Sidonie Otto many problems with intonation and blend their voices are markedly different from each other, the former being fuller and heftier, the latter lighter and more agile.
Having Otto sing second soprano to Bach seemed an odd decision although it was partially explained by the fact that the roles were reversed for the entire of Membra Jesu Nostri and the unsettled feeling extended to the whole of the ensemble, with bass Wolf Matthias Friedrich often over-egging his earnest characterisation of the text, and tenor Hans Jrg Mammel not reining in the clear, piercing edge to his voice.
Cantus Clln were far more assured in Membra Jesu Nostri, a work which they recorded five years ago (with mostly the same musicians) and their performance of which has grown and improved ever since. The instrumental ensemble really took the lead in finding the beauty of sound required for the intensity of the Latin meditative texts, and their boldness and sensitivity roped the singers into following suit. Alto Elisabeth Popien was outstanding all night long, finding the masculinity of voice to blend with Friedrich and Mammel in the many alto-tenor-bass sections, while also matching the sopranos in upper-voice passages.
Some issues of ensemble continued to irk, but these were minor quibbles in an otherwise excellent performance I only wish more of Londons concertgoers had been bothered to attend.
Further details of St John’s, Smith Square concerts can be found at sjss.org.uk