Belgian early music vocal ensemble Vox Luminis wrapped up its current tour with an outstanding performance of J.S. Bach’s Motets on Sunday night in New York. Corpus Christi Church offers an ideal acoustic environment for a small, well-balanced array of voices. Numbering about a dozen, and accompanied only by organ and viola da gamba, the ensemble’s individual voices shone even as they cohered gorgeously around texts from biblical and other sources. The concert will be remembered as a highlight of Music Before 1800‘s 44th season.
When we think of Bach’s choral music we usually think of cantatas, not motets. But the composer made magic with the older form as well. The handful of motets attributed with certainty to Bach fit very easily into a single evening’s program. And 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.
Some musicologists once imagined Bach had written these works as exercises for his less accomplished students. Vox Luminis’s performance made that extremely difficult to believe. The singers applied subtle skill immediately at the start of the two-part motet “Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf.” The “Spirit” who “makes intersession for us with groans which cannot be uttered” was nonetheless quite audibly evoked. The singers infused every sustained note with expressive dynamics as sixteenth-note phrases wound around the longer tones. Likewise, the “holy fire” of the Chorale did not flame in the music; rather, the lilting melody stressed “comfort” and the idea of courageously battling for goodness with love, not the sword.
All the beautiful complexity of Bach’s contrapuntal writing shone through a finely balanced, full-throated performance of the brief motet “Komm, Jesu, Komm.” The ensemble’s sensitive reading conveyed through the music the text’s theme of contented resignation in the face of death.
The longer motet “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” opens with a joyful song about singing, all about the sound, with extended melismas, here sung deftly and with passion. The relative simplicity of the second section evokes the worshippers’ “pure and innocent hearts.” The motet concludes with quick and vigorous counterpoint. Vox Luminis performed these intricacies together as one, almost as if guided by a divine hand. “Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord,” proclaims the text, and a lot of breath is needed. The closing “Hallelujah” is surely one of the most exciting in the centuries-long history of liturgical music.
The concert’s second half opened with a compact motet that may have been written by one of Bach’s elder relatives, or conceivably by Johann Sebastian himself in tribute to an earlier master. Its first section showed off the ensemble’s ease with music that’s all harmony and no counterpoint. The ensuing fugue is simpler than those typical of J.S. Bach. Altogether, the motet functioned as a rest for the ears amid the intricate artistic brilliance of the most famous of the Bachs.
The 11-part motet “Jesu, meine Freude” moves from a stark opening statement into a movement whose almost eerie spaciousness powerfully suggests the spiritual realm. The silences around the staccato voicings of the word “nicht” – “there is nothing (‘nicht’) damnable in those who are in Christ Jesus” – form perhaps the most simply dramatic passage of the whole motet. In the fifth section, another climactic moment accents death depicted as an “old dragon,” the basses rolling up to emphasize “earth and abyss.”
In the sixth and pivotal section the group sang with rich, full motivic force, achieving a sense of the Spirit let loose like a flock of birds flitting on the wind this way and that. That sense of freedom gave way to dread with an evocation of being lost without faith. The eighth section’s fugue moved fast, but smoothly as glass. Voices entered from every direction in the ninth’s arch lullaby, creating a marvelous sense of fullness and spaciousness.
The brief final movement returns to the simplicity of the first with a solemn closing statement: “Hence, spirits of sadness…Though I endure mockery and shame here below…You stay with me even in sorrow.” That’s from a 17th-century poem by Johan Franck, who wrote in the same poem that “For those who love God, even their troubles will be pure sugar.” Anyone bringing troubles into the presence of Bach as interpreted by Vox Luminis is almost sure to feel them melting away into sweetness.