Belgian Choral Ensemble Vox Luminis Celebrates Two Centuries of Sacred Music by the Bach Family

Vox Luminis, the formidable Belgian vocal ensemble, offered an astonishing concert of 17th and 18th-century German Lutheran choral music Sunday at La Jolla’s St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church. On this opening program of the San Diego Early Music Society’s new season, Vox Luminis gave stirring accounts of unjustly neglected sacred music by members of the Bach family not named Johann Sebastian, although they capped their concert with the Leipzig cantor’s beloved motet Jesu Meine Freude, BWV 227.

Although this programming premise could have turned into a worthy but didactic music history exercise, Vox Luminis Artistic Director Lionel Meunier and his twelve musical colleagues transcended that modest goal with their vibrant vocal technique and deft showmanship.

Anchored around Anthony Romaniuk at the chamber organ placed in the center of the St. James chancel, the number and configuration of singers changed for each motet. Mixing and matching different voices brought out a wider array of the ensemble’s vocal colors, as opposed hearing a choir’s full ensemble all evening.

For double motets, a quartet of singers on either side of the organist worked efficiently, but for other motets, Meunier stationed singers in the church nave or other parts of the church. Between each motet, Romaniuk improvised a clever organ fugue that took them to the key of the next piece on the program and gave the singers a bit of cover music while they reassembled into their next position. This gave the whole concert a marvelously seamless unity and focus.

For example, Vox Luminis’ staging of Johann Michael Bach’s Halt, was du hast heightened that motet’s dramatic structure. At the front of the chancel, four of the male singers gave impassioned accounts of soloistic, angular declamation accompanied by the organ, while the rest of the singers—stretched across the rear of the chancel—gently intoned the harmonized chorale “Jesu, meine Freude,” sustained by viola da gamba virtuoso Ricardo Rodriguez Miranda. This arrangement conjured the dramatic immediacy of an opera scene without compromising its spiritual message. Although it did bring to mind that well-documented reaction from one of J. S. Bach’s conservative parishioners after hearing the St. Matthew Passion sung during Holy Week: “Now he’s brought Italian opera into the church!”

A pair of New Year’s Day motets by Johann Michael Bach, Sei, lieber Tag, wilkommen and Nun treten wir ins neue Jahr, brought an unexpected ebullient–even dance-like–spirit to this program of liturgical music, and the singers eagerly communicated the joyful, sparkling antiphonal interplay that pervades these motets. And the stirring contrapuntal “Amen” that ended the second motet revealed that Sebastian Bach was not the only master of complex polyphony that pleases equally both mind and ear.

Much of the music on this program comes from from an 18th-century collection of sacred music written by the several Bach family composers, a collection that Sebastian himself acquired in 1739 while cantor in Leipzig. During the partition of Germany after World War II, this rich manuscript disappeared and was considered lost until it was rediscovered in 1999 in the Kiev’s Ukrainian State Archive. We are no doubt fortunate that musicologists such as Lionel Meunier got to this source before Rudy Giuliani’s agents got wind of it.

I was impressed with Unser Leben ist ein Schatten, a six-voice motet with an added echo choir by Sebastian’s great-uncle Johann Bach, who thrived in Erfurt, Germany. A lengthy meditation on life’s fleeting character–Uncle Johann was fortunate enough to survive the Thirty Years’ War–the motet is constructed with short, arresting phrases and bright declamation, taking time out for three then familiar hymn-style chorales.

J. S. Bach’s eleven-stanza motet Jesu, Meine Freude has long been a favorite of large community choirs and a cappella touring college choirs in North America. Vox Luminis’ version of this motet with ten strong voices supported by a continuo comprised of organ and viola da gamba refreshed this magnificent work with exceptional vitality, animation, and dynamic acuity. And for the record, this configuration is probably closer to what Sebastian Bach heard when he performed it than any performance by an a cappella choir of 70 fresh-faced college students.

This concert was presented on October 27, 2019, by the San Diego Early Music Society at St. James by-the-Sea Church, La Jolla, California.

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