Sunday 14 July 2019

The Belgian ensemble Vox Luminis brings its residency at Wigmore Hall to an end with Bach's complete motets

Vox Luminis
Vox Luminis
J.S. Bach complete motets; Vox Luminis; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 July 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Bach's complete surviving motets in performances both intimate and engaging, yet never short of drama or emotion

The motet was not central to Lutheran worship in Bach's Leipzig, it was cantatas which the great man was expected to produce on a regular basis though older, smaller scale motets were used as well but these tended to be simpler in style. Bach seems to have written motets mainly for special occasions, the surviving ones are nearly all funeral motets. As ever, Bach takes a musical genre and re-makes it, so that Bach's motets are far more musically developed and more complex than those of his predecessors.

For the last concert of its residency at Wigmore Hall, the early music ensemble Vox Luminis (artistic director Lionel Meunier) gave us a complete cycle of Bach's motets, including one which was only attributed to him in the 1980s: Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf BWV226, Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn BWV Anh.159, Jesu, meine Freude BWV227, Fürchte dich nicht BWV228, Komm, Jesu, komm BWV229, Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied BWV225. The ensemble used a group of ten singers with each motet being sung by a slightly different line-up, always one singer to a part, accompanied by Bart Jacobs (organ), Ricardo Rodriguez Miranda (viola da gamba) and Lisa Goldberg (bassoon). In between each motet, Jacobs played a short organ piece to create a linked sequence.

Bach's motets are challenging, complex choral pieces with Bach seemingly taking advantage of the occasional nature of the works to push boundaries. We do not really know in detail about the performance conditions of individual motets; did Bach use instruments in all of them or just some of them, would it be the standard Lutheran tradition of one singer to a part or did the occasional or festive nature of the pieces mean Bach had more decent singers available. At least some of the surviving manuscripts include instrumental accompaniments and whilst Bach would probably not have conducted them in the modern sense, his direction from the organ would have been very active. Vox Luminis, singing without a conductor, provided an object lesson in how to perform this music with a small group of singers. Only in a couple of places did ensemble waver under the pressure of an impulsive tempo. But overall these were technically superb, with the more complex passagework woven fluidly into the overal texture of the piece.

These were generally fleet performances, but never skated over the surface and it was noticeably how, in many of the motets, the singers prized the words as well. No matter how elaborate the music, it is worth bearing in mind that the word was most important in a Lutheran service. Chorales were finely done, and many movement were notable for the moving simplicity of the performance. These singers made us understand that this music meant something.

It was fascinating, being able to hear Ich lasse dich nicht, which for a long time was attributed to one of Bach's forebears. It is in the simpler motet style which Bach inherited and shows us Bach following the example of predecessors at the church. This was emphasised by the group's encore, as they performed Komm Jesu Komm by Bach's immediate predecessor at St Thomas' Church, Leipzig, Johann Scheller. This proved to be an attractive yet quite simple chorale-like piece (evidently strictly it is an aria not a chorale).

Der Geist hilft started us off, with a lovely dance-like feel to the rhythms and shapely phrasing, with the more complex passages having a nice clarity of texture. Next came Ich lasse dich with Bach using two choirs in simple and touching dialogue. Jesu meine Freude has, perhaps, the most complex structure of any of the motets and this was superbly realised here. Large scale movements were fleet and light, with a great use of silence, with a real vividness to the text in moments like 'Trozt dem alten Drachen', whilst the more intimate solo numbers were finely taken.  The multi-layered chorale movement, 'Gute Nacht, o Wesen' was very moving.

The second half opened with Fürchte dich nicht, lightly responsive singing punctuated by some fine rhetorical moments, and finishing with the wonderful chromatics of the fugue. Komm, Jesu, komm was equally rhetorical in the beautiful placing of the repeated 'komm' against the finely shaped phrases. Quite steady in tempo, each section of the motet was strongly characterised, ending with a choral of moving simplicity. We ended with the unashamed celebration of Singet dem Herren, which was engagingly light with the fast passages fluidly given in the flowing texture, with details moving in and out of focus, followed by the remarkable central section with its interleaving of textures, and ending with an engaging fugue with a lovely swing to it.

This concert was a lovely end to Vox Luminis' residency, but the good news is that they will be back next season.

Vox Luminis: Zsuzsi Toth, Caroline Weynants, Victoria Cassano, Stefanie True (sopranos), Daniel Elgersma, Alexander Chance (alto), Philippe Froeliger, Masashi Tsuji (tenor), Lionel Meunier, Sebastian Myrus (bass), Bart Jacobs (organ), Ricardo Rodrigues Miranda (viola da gamba), Lisa Goldberg (bassoon)

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