The recent BBC television documentary series on Westminster Abbey will have made familiar faces of many who are usually behind the scenes. For the choir, though, it was an opportunity to profile the ambassadorial role it plays – the series coincided with a historic visit to the Vatican in Rome – and to remind the public of the value of its day-to-day activities.
As Easter approaches, sacred music is at its seasonal peak. But there is another world beyond the many performances of Bach’s Passions in the concert hall and it is hard to imagine a more rewarding alternative than hearing the Choir of Westminster Abbey in its holy week concert of Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri, performed in the nave.
How often does the average concert-goer hear any Buxtehude today? Bach may famously have walked more than 200 miles from Armstadt to Lübeck to see Buxtehude play the organ, but most people now would not cross the road to hear his music. That is a shame, as a work such as his fine Membra Jesu Nostri – a cycle of seven short cantatas, each addressed to a different part of Christ’s body – is rich in invention.
Music like this has a hard time of it in the concert hall. As the hymn at the core of the work addresses Christ’s feet, hands, heart or head, the effect is very intimate and it may be that Buxtehude had a private occasion in mind. Solo voices from the choir here did most of the work, and with a group of instrumentalists that never numbered more than eight, this performance was on an appropriately small scale, made possible by the hushed and devotional atmosphere of the Abbey.
Winter colds had carried off some of the evening’s planned soloists, but among some variable solo work bright-voiced trebles and experienced tenors and basses remembered from the television series stood out. There were familiar faces, too, from London’s leading period instrument orchestras among St James’s Baroque and conductor James O’Donnell directed them and the choir in an expressive performance that was perfectly judged for its surroundings. At a time when period authenticity is valued so highly, let us be clear that that ought to mean where the music is performed, not just how.