Vox Luminis goes deep into back pages of Bach family album

Mon Oct 24, 2022 at 1:33 pm
Vox Luminis performed Sunday at Corpus Christi Church for Music Before 1800. Photo: Tom Blaton

The first historian of the illustrious Bach family of musicians was Johann Sebastian Bach himself, who took up family genealogy late in his life. 

Sunday’s concert by the Belgian vocal ensemble Vox Luminis revealed the musical riches to be found along just one branch of that family tree. The concert was presented by Music Before 1800 at Corpus Christi Church in Morningside Heights and titled “Bach: The Arnstadt Connection.” 

The town of Arnstadt is a good jumping-off point for thinking about J.S. Bach. He lived and worked there in his teens, provoking the ire of his employers by grossly overstaying a four-week leave to visit the famous composer Dietrich Buxtehude in Lübeck, a 400-kilometer walk from there. He married an Arnstadt girl, Maria Barbara, daughter of his cousin Johann Michael Bach. The Arnstadt Bachs extended back from Johann Michael and his brother Johann Christoph to their father Heinrich and beyond—and almost to a man, they were musicians.

Sunday’s program brought this genealogical chart to life in music, conveying not only the highly individual personalities of the composers but the development of musical style through three generations of family and German history—along with a generous helping of pretty tunes, virtuoso singing and fiddling, and toe-tapping rhythms.

The ensemble consisted of eleven singers—including the group’s founder and director Lionel Meunier, who guided the singing with a gesture here and there—five string players, and a robust basso continuo of organ and theorbo. This was no strain-to-hear-it early music concert; vocal solos projected clearly with impeccable diction, and at full strength the ensemble filled the Baroque-style church with superbly tuned sound.

The program began well upstream in the story, with one of the few surviving works by granddaddy Heinrich Bach (1615-1692). Ich danke dir Gott was a little gem of a geistliches Konzert (sacred concerto, or cantata), beginning with a mellifluous instrumental sinfonia and proceeding to singing in euphonious thirds. Natural, speech-like phrasing gave way to ornate vocal lines in close imitation, while violins and violas conversed in the background. Lasting just a few minutes, the piece contained the seeds of much to come that Sunday afternoon.

Herr, der König freuet sich by Johann Michael Bach (1648-1694) used an expanded cantata form to set a psalm celebrating a king’s strength and piety. Robust homophonic choruses alternated with picturesque solos, including an elaborate melisma on the phrase “langes Leben” (long life).

Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703) composed the allegorical mini-drama Die Furcht des Herren for the installation of the town council—a happy civic occasion celebrated in mostly major keys, but punctuated by urgent pleas from individual officials to Wisdom (soprano solo) for guidance. And they will need it, judging from the dissonant harmonies and suspensions that loomed in the opening sinfonia.

Then it was time for the 400-kilometer walk to meet Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) and discover, as the young man from Arnstadt did, a whole new level of music-making. The gear-shifting rhythms and picturesque text-setting were still there, but incorporated in a larger design: a wonderfully imaginative set of variations on the optimistic chorale tune Herzlich Lieb hab ich dich, o Herr, sung at the outset by sopranos in long notes over a busy string accompaniment.

The music began unfolding stanza by stanza, but by the end Buxtehude was setting the text line by line, switching between chorus and solos, with changing meters and dramatic pauses. Singers and players deftly navigated this treacherous terrain, and there was a note of triumph in their gorgeous cadence on the final “Amen.”

In contrast, the slow opening sinfonia of Johann Christoph Bach’s Herr, wende dich und sei mir gnädig resonated darkly with stabbing harmonic cross-relations in organ and low strings. Three singers bemoaned their fates to the refrain “Der Grab ist da” (The grave is open) and the voice of God (bass solo) offered words of comfort and joy, even breaking into a dance. A lilting chorale, accompanied by more scurrying strings, closed the work on a sunny note.

All these winding streams (Bäche) lead eventually to the master stream, and so Sunday’s program closed with the Easter cantata J.S. Bach composed shortly after his belated return to Arnstadt from Lübeck, Christ lag in Totes Banden, BWV 4. As vivid choruses alternated with arias and duets, one could hear echoes of Buxtehude’s walking bass and racing strings, but also Johann Christoph’s ornate passagework, Johann Michael’s pictorial flair, even Heinrich’s lines in imitation—all elevated by the unique imagination and spirit of their genius cousin.

Through it all, from Heinrich to Johann Sebastian, the singers and players of Vox Luminis wove a rich tapestry of life and music in the German Baroque, early and late, with all its piety and earthly drama, tonal purity and sensuality of sound.

As a combined encore and curtain call, the ensemble performed another chorale cantata by Buxtehude, Jesu, meines lebens Leben, beginning with just the instrumentalists onstage, and each soloist or group entering when it was their turn to sing, concluding all together with a sonorous “Amen.”

Music Before 1800 presents Juilliard415, conducted by Laurence Cummings, in works by Heinichen, Fasch, Pisendel, Zelenka, and other Baroque composers of the Saxon court at Dresden, 4 p.m. Dec. 11 at Corpus Christi Church. mb1800.org.

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