When I heard the Belgian early music vocal ensemble “Vox Luminis” perform Bach motets on October 20th in Dallas, my already high expectations were exceeded in many ways.
I hadn’t gone to the concert expecting an interesting lesson in music history, but I discovered that the polyphony wasn’t written by one Bach, but rather by four members of the prodigious family.
The group performed works of the Bach family including Johann Bach, Johann Michael Bach, Johann Christoph Bach, Johann Ludwig Bach and Johann Sebastian Bach. It turns out that the famous Johann Sebastian Bach came from a line of illustrious composers. The ancestors of Johann Sebastian Bach were not the less remarkable for all the fame of their more widely-celebrated relative.
“Vox Luminis” performed selections from the collection of the Bach family motets called “Altbachisches Archiv,” which consists of 20 motets and a series of cantatas. The German music is set to a text of the Bible or the verse of a hymn.
Before the concert, I had some slight doubts as to the effectiveness of the German language in musical phrasing. Being very familiar with Medieval Latin polyphony, I wondered how the German Baroque polyphony could match the sublimity and other-worldliness which Latin polyphony produces almost effortlessly. I quickly realized that although the German polyphony isn’t as celestial as the Latin polyphony, both are beautiful. The more guttural German language actually serves its purpose wonderfully in the Bach motets, since the motets are more like poems than prayers.
The program began on a somber note in a minor key with the words: “Our life on earth is but a shadow.” Then, the choir repeated the line several times quickly and in a major key. This change in the music led to an uplifted mood, reflected both in the words and in the notes throughout the rest of the program. Even in serious parts of the music, a Christian hope sounded. The verses in the different motets noted the emptiness of human life while calling upon God as the joy of human existence on earth and in Heaven.
The program concluded with “Jesu Meine Freude” by Johann Sebastian. This piece consists of an earnest prayer to the Savior and the firm resolution to stand against the world, Satan and sin. At one point in the piece, the music becomes quite loud and fierce, accompanying a verse about thunder and lightning. The German words “kracht” and “blitz,” thunder and lightning, added the appropriate accents to the music. At the same point in the concert, the huge thunderstorm struck Dallas. No special effects needed!
The polyphony was typical of the Baroque Period — stately yet energetic, with sharp contrasts in tempo between sections.
The group performed quite movingly, observing the subtleties in dynamics and mood. Even their facial expressions were on par with the music.
I especially admired their richness of tone and expert blending of harmony. The sopranos projected their part beautifully. All the singers took full advantage of the wonderful acoustics in the large church.
Most of the time the twelve singers were divided into separate choirs, alternating verses. Between pieces, some singers would switch out, and would also vary their formations. This enhanced the contrast between the different compositions.
The polyphony was lightly accompanied by the organ, played by Jorge Escribano, and by the viola da gamba, played by Ricardo Miranda. The accompaniment added a soft touch to the music and gave it more of a feel of sacred music.
The artistic director, Lionel Meunier, led the choir while singing himself.
As the New York Times attested in a February 2016 article on the same program, Vox Luminis rendered an excellent performance.
I believe the group’s mastery of the performance was a result of their ability to create an atmosphere of beauty which was both awe-inspiring and intimate, perfectly resonating with the sentiments of the poetry and prayer in the music. My experience of the concert was both ecstatic and meditative — something impossible to anticipate and just as difficult to express.
The group certainly deserves its name, as the enthusiastic standing ovation at the close of the concert acknowledged.