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Vox Luminis, 21 October 2023

Concert Review: Vox Luminis – ‘The Early Cantatas’ (Bach, Buxtehude)

Belgian early music ensemble Vox Luminis, currently touring the U.S., brought a glowing program of early cantatas by J.S. Bach and one by Dieterich Buxtehude to Times Square on Saturday night. It was great to see the group in fine form, again traveling and preaching the gospel of Bach’s genius – I last saw them in 2018, before the pandemic.

The concert included three cantatas from the first decade of the 18th century by a young J.S. Bach, and for context (and pleasure) one by Buxtehude, who was an important influence on Bach’s choral music.

As a young man, Bach famously walked over 400 kilometers to meet the eminent Danish-born master. Bach may have heard the specific work Vox Luminis performed, Jesu, meines Lebens Leben BuxWV 62. He may even have sat in and played violin on it during his stay in Lûbeck, where the elder composer was resident organist. Regardless, listening to it in the context of Bach’s early cantatas it’s not hard to discern what inspired Johann Sebastian.

Roots and Branches

In essence, the bulk of Buxtehude’s cantata is a chaconne – a piece built over a single repeated bass line (ostinato), with melodic and harmonic variations and development flowering as far as the composer’s imagination will go. In this case just four singers accompanied by strings carry the text’s depictions of Jesus’ suffering, through sections that alternate between solo voice (soprano, tenor) and ensemble singing.

Throughout the Miller Theatre presentation, the vast echoey space of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin benefited the solo voices more than the ensemble sections. The program began with Bach’s Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (Actus Tragicus) BWV 106, and almost right away one had to work to follow the striking melisma amid the echo.

Fortunately one could still appreciate the exceptional quality of these voices, animated by equally accomplished musicianship from the string, wind and organ players. The cantata proceeded with the other three voices joining one by one – a duet, a trio of voices (the second Chorus section ending with an angelic a cappella from the soprano) and finally all four singers.

I always find that my brain adjusts to the echo as a church concert progresses, enabling me to hear and appreciate what’s happening pretty well, if not quite as clearly as in a concert hall.

In Auf der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir BWV 131 the vocal ensemble doubles in size. The singers make the second Chorus section, with text from Psalm 130, a resonant stunner. The Arioso & Chorale impressed in a different way, sung by an exceptionally strong and supple tenor soloist accompanied only by a solemn organ part. In the very first line, repeated multiple times, Bach pauses dramatically – and differently each time – on the word “wartet” (“waits”) in the phrase “Meine Seele wartet auf den Herrn” (“My soul waits for the Lord”) – one example of the music’s seriously playful alignment of literal and musical sense. Similarly striking was the exclamatory first word of the next Chorus section, “Israel.”

Bach: A Way with Words

The ensemble’s artistic director Lionel Meunier expertly brings out these kinds of elements. After the vocal lineup pared down to a quartet again for the Buxtehude, the program concluded with Bach’s Nach dire, Herr, verlanger mich BWV 150, whose first Chorus section dwells achingly on the word “zuschanden” (“ashamed”).

The ensuing Aria featured a wonderful soprano, but most of this cantata is carried by the ensemble. Heroic sawing on the viol supported the singers in the second Aria. The chaconne at the end sounded deeply devotional – in the artistic as well as the religious sense.

As a welcome encore, Vox Luminis gave us, from Bach’s somewhat later but still youthful BWV 12 cantata, the Sinfonia (instrumental introduction) and the Chorus that the composer reworked for his Mass in B minor – that great work which he didn’t complete until some 35 years later, the year before he died. I suspect Meunier intended this as a comment on the continuities we can find in Bach’s choral work, from his roots as a young acolyte of Buxtehude to his full maturity as the master whose music we still hear and revere. Vox Luminis continues to play a valuable part in perpetuating Bach’s music for the benefit of generation after generation of listeners and musicians alike.

Vox Luminis’ U.S. tour continues in other U.S. cities in the coming weeks. Information on upcoming Miller Theatre events is online too, including its early music concerts, Composer Portraits, and more.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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