October 11, 2007


Buxtehude: Membra Jesu Nostri. Les Voix Baroques conducted by Alexander Weimann. ATMA Classique. $16.99.

Sullivan: Pineapple Poll (arr. Mackerras); Symphony in E, “Irish.” Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Lloyd-Jones. Naxos. $8.99.

      Everyone knows what Dietrich Buxtehude composed: organ works, which so impressed Bach that the younger man extended his planned one-month visit to Buxtehude in 1705 to a full four months. Well, the Bach part of what “everyone knows” may be correct, but the “organ works” part is wrong, or at least incomplete. For Buxtehude was as much a composer of vocal music as of pieces for organ – and on the basis of such works as Membra Jesu Nostri, he deserves to be as famed for his handling of voices as for his instrumental music. The full title of this work is Membra Jesu Nostri patientis sanctissima, “The Most Holy Body Parts of Our Suffering Jesus.” It is, of course, a religious work – but one that humanizes Christ in important ways by focusing on his body while singing of his divinity. Each of its seven sections, labeled cantatas, is addressed to a different part of Christ’s body: feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart and face. The employment of small forces – two sopranos, alto, tenor, bass, two violins (except in one of the cantatas), violone, theorbo and organ – lends the work great intimacy and makes it a personal expression as well as one of scriptural (specifically Lutheran) orthodoxy. Buxtehude weaves the words wonderfully, in solo arias and settings for three or five voices. And he uses instrumental sections with consummate skill, as in the emotionally intense opening Sonata (in tremulo) of the second cantata. The first cantata features excellent five-part and individual vocal writing; the third is dour but calming; the fourth has a particularly affecting air for the first soprano; and the Concerto à 3 is a highlight of the fifth. The final cantatas depart emotionally from the first five. The sixth drops the violins and substitutes a quartet of violas da gamba, lending the cantata a far darker and even more somber tone than the earlier ones possess (think of Bach, not too many years later, dropping violins in his Brandenburg Concerto No. 6). The contrast of the musical mood with such vocal effects as the bass voice’s “Viva! Viva!” (addressing both Christ’s heart and the singer’s own) is highly effective. And then the final cantata brings back the violins, offers a surprisingly bright instrumental opening, and is throughout more celebratory than anything that has gone before.

      The enjoyment of this unfamiliar music is helped immensely by the excellence of the performance. Sopranos Suzie LeBlanc and Catherine Webster, alto (countertenor) Matthew White, tenor Pascal Charbonneau and bass Thomas Meglioranza sing idiomatically and enthusiastically, but with enough piety so the essential religious message of Buxtehude’s work shines through. This is sacred music that, through sheer beauty, speaks even to our secular age.

      Fast-forward now to the mid-19th century and the work of Sir Arthur Sullivan, who – everyone knows – composed light music, especially the famous operettas he created with W.S. Gilbert. True, Sullivan has a few non-operatic works to his credit, such as the song The Lost Chord and the hymn Onward Christian Soldiers, but everyone knows that Sullivan was at his best in frothy music. One thing he certainly wasn’t was a symphonist.

      But he was. The Symphony in E, “Irish,” is an early work – written when Sullivan was 21 and first performed in 1866, when he was 24 – but it is an entirely legitimate symphony; even more, it is charming, well constructed and skillfully orchestrated – albeit derivative, especially of Mendelssohn. The lengthy first movement starts with a two-and-a-half minute introduction featuring fine horn writing and being somewhat reminiscent of the Sturm und Drang of the first symphony by Niels W. Gade, a Danish composer also much influenced by Mendelssohn. The main section of this movement trips along much of the time with Mendelssohnian lightness, with only a few foreshadowings of the sort of music that Sullivan was later to write. The second movement, with horns again prominent, has a chorale-like opening and major-to-minor meanderings reminiscent of Schubert. It has lovely, lyrical string passages and some nice wind touches, although it is never deep. The third movement is the most interesting: it has a fascinating opening for pizzicato strings and oboe, and a bucolic, relaxed theme that sounds nothing like the theme of a scherzo – although Sullivan gradually and skillfully turns it first into a march and then into a scherzo-like passage. The contrasting trio, in which the strings are muted, is also highly original. The finale is less successful, featuring a bright fanfare-like opening and broad themes interlaced with horn calls. There is a vaguely Irish cast to some of the thematic material, but it is not strong, and the themes are not particularly memorable. Still, Sullivan builds the movement to an effective close with, once again, prominent horns. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under David Lloyd-Jones plays this symphony for all it is worth, and it is in fact worth a good deal – not great music, true, but music that shows us a virtually unknown side of Sullivan, and one certainly worth knowing.

      Pineapple Poll, a pastiche ballet arranged by conductor Charles Mackerras from 12 of the 14 operas that Sullivan wrote to Gilbert’s libretti (everything except Utopia Ltd. and The Grand Duke), brings us back to territory far more closely associated with what “everyone knows” about Sullivan – although the juxtaposition of pieces from multiple operettas can be a little unsettling to fans of the Savoy canon. Here Lloyd-Jones and the orchestra really cut loose, emphasizing the ways in which Mackerras added to Sullivan’s original orchestration through highly prominent horns and percussion (among other things). This is a jaunty work, alternating delicacy with drama, and is a thorough delight to hear when played with as much spirit as it has here. It’s great fun, but – unlike Sullivan’s symphony – it’s fun of a more familiar sort.

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