Darkness and Exuberance of the Celestial Voices of “Vox Luminis”

Nélida Nassar 11.06.2019

At the invitation of the Boston Early Music Festival, Vox Luminis, the Belgian early music vocal ensemble wrapped up its current three-week US tour with an outstanding performance of the “Bach Dynasty: One hundred years of motets” on Saturday evening at the First Church in Cambridge, Congressional. The group enchanted the audience with works from several generations of the Bach family. The program included one six-movement and one single movement motet by Johann Bach, who, along with his brothers Christoph and Heinrich, helped consolidate the family’s reputation as a musical dynasty. Heinrich’s sons, Johann Michael and Johann Christoph, were themselves recognized composers, specialists in chorale-motets, and tonight we heard four pieces by the former and two by the latter. These were followed by two others by Ludwig Bach, who was born into a separate branch of the family. The concluding work was a motet by Johann Sebastian Bach.

The First Church provides a fine acoustic environment for a small, well-balanced array of voices like Vox Luminis, which numbered eleven singers, accompanied only by an organ and a viola da gamba. The individual voices shone in their very moving interpretation of texts from biblical and other sources. The concert will surely be remembered as a highlight among recent presentations of music composed before 1800.

When we think of Bach’s choral music we usually think of cantatas, not motets. But Johann Sebastian and his family worked magic with the older form as well. Only a small number of motets can be attributed with certainty to him, but judging from the one included in this program, in the hands of a supremely accomplished group like Vox Luminis, they exhibit the great composer’s artistic genius as fully as anything else he wrote.  

One experiences Vox Luminiss singing as more than an abstract representation; it induces something like levitation, because the group’s full and mellifluous sound, combined with its mastery of nuance, transmits an almost indescribable state of well-being. The enveloping, well-balanced sonorities, always meticulously detailed, bring out the full poetic force of the texts, which vary between supplication and tenderness,  just as the impressive architecture of the scores move from shadowy, mysterious passages to the brightness of celestial heights.

The members of Vox Luminis took up various symmetrical positions depending on which motet they were singing. An unusual feature of this choir is that the members sometimes sing all together and in other times are divided into two groups, one of them concealed, producing an attenuated but still splendid, angelic echo.

The concert began with a piece composed by Bach’s great uncle Johann. Unser Leben ist ein Schatten (Our life on earth is but a shadow). Its first section showed how at ease the ensemble is with music that is all harmony with no counterpoint. The ensuing fugue is simpler than those typical of J.S. Bach. Altogether, the motet functioned as a rest for the ears before encountering the intricate constructions of the most famous of the Bachs.

The beautiful complexity of Johann Christoph Bach’s contrapuntal writing was in evidence in a finely balanced yet full-throated performance of the brief motet Lieber Herr Gott, weche uns auf ( Dear Lord God, wake us now). The ensemble’s sensitive reading conveyed the text’s theme of the savior’s arrival and the sense of contentment the prospect of this event creates in the listener.   

The concert’s second half opened with Johann Ludwig Bach’s brief piece Das ist meine Freude (That’s my joy), an exultant work about staying close to God and placing one’s trust in Him, sung deftly and with passion. The relative simplicity and shortness of the motet evokes the worshippers’ pure and innocent hearts, and Vox Luminis performed it with an astonishing degree of ensemble unity.

The concert concluded with Johann Sebastian’s 11-movement Jesu, meine Freude (Jesus My Joy) which moves from a stark opening statement to a section whose almost eerie spaciousness powerfully evokes the spiritual realm. The silences surrounding the staccato utterings of the word “nichts” (there is nothing [‘nichts’] damnable in those who are in Christ Jesus) create perhaps the most starkly dramatic passage of the whole motet. In the fifth movement, another climactic moment accents death, depicted as an “old dragon,” and is followed by the basses’ heavy emphasis on the words “earth and abyss.”

The awe-struck audience warmly applauded the performers and their leader (Lionel Meunier). The encore, Johann Michael Bach’s Unser Leben währet siebenzig Jahr (Our life lasts for seventy years), sung antiphonally, was exceptionally beautiful. 

With this concert, which will long be remembered by the audience, the Boston Early Music Festival’s director Kathleen Fay has once again demonstrated her rare gift of choosing the right performers at the right moment. Given the group’s great success tonight in this, its fourth appearance in Boston, we can surely look forward to many more visits in the future.

Lionel Meunier, Artistic Director and bass
Zsuzsi Tóth, Viola Blache, Marta Paklar and Victoria Cassano, soprano
Barnabas Hegyi and Jay Kullman, alto
Robert Buckland, Philippe Froeliger and João Moreira, tenor
Sebastian Myrus, bass
Anthony Romaniuk, organ

https://bemf.org
https://www.voxluminis.com/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Sebastian_Bach https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Bach https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Christoph_Bach https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Ludwig_Bach