The Boston Early Music Festival’s welcome re-engagement of Vox Luminis in a program of German motets, representing most of the Bach family tree, brought great pleasure to the First Church, Cambridge crown Saturday. Director Lionel Meunier summarized the founding and purpose of the ensemble, the complex Bach family tree from which the program came, and deftly addressed questions of performance practice before the music began.
After a brief improvised organ prelude, the concert flowed in roughly chronological order, with two sacred motets by Johann Bach (1604-1673), four by Johann Michael (1648-1694), two by Johann Christoph (1642-1703), three by Johann Ludwig (1677-1731), and concluded with Johann Sebastian. Similar organ improvisations linked all the works, respecting the sacred text while also preventing burdensome applause.
The first motet, “Unser Leben ist ein Schatten auf Erden” by Johann Bach (1604-1673), utilized a clever echo ensemble just out of sight. While some soprano intonation faltered briefly here, we otherwise heard solid tuning across the ensemble; its blend was admirable, as were the contributions of violist da gamba Ricardo Rodriguez Miranda, and incisive organist Anthony Romaniuk.
Johann Michael Bach’s “Herr, ich warte auf dein Heil” revealed remarkably tenderness, reflecting upon the heartache of life. While many of the pieces used divided SATB choirs in the typical Venetian fashion of the day, here high and low voice choirs alternated from choir 1 (soprano, alto, tenor) and a lower second choir (alto, tenor, bass), with organ, yet without viola da gamba.
The soprano opening of “Sie, Lieber Tag, willkommen,” also by J.M. Bach, proved exceptionally joyful and exclamative. Set generally in six parts, various smaller sub-combinations abounded, as in contemporary viol consort music. The clarity of rhetoric and the persuasiveness of its presentation in this program would be difficult to overstate.
Also performed without viola da gamba, “Nun treten wir ins neue Jahr,” began with a distractingly active organ introduction, yet only here did the lower register of the organ suffer in the large space.
J.M. Bach’s “Halt, was du hast,” a motet for divided choirs of three and six voices summitted the show. The spatially separated ensembles, each with its own supporting instrument, alternated, often line by line, between two chorale tunes and texts. The six-part verses of “Jesu, meine Freude” particularly stunned, as did the closing “Gute Nacht, o Wesen/Gute Nacht, ihr Sunden.” This piece would have perhaps benefited, at least in the large sanctuary, from a larger bowed bass instrument such as a violone in G, yet the viola da gamba’s nevertheless contributed admirably.
Contemporary Johann Christoph Bach’s five-voice motet “Der Mensch, vom Weibe geboren” offered a nice contrast—he set each verse in a different solo, duet, or trio texture, only using all voices in the final one.
Johann Ludwig Bach’s “Das Blut Jesu Christi” changed in era and style abruptly, with firmly late 17th-century stylistic techniques, and far more imitation at frequent intervals than heard earlier in the chronologically arranged program. Simple and occasionally lilting despite the gruesome text, its homophonic moments would have enjoyed the addition of a theorbo.
The second half included Johann Ludwig’s short and flowing “Das ist meine Freude,” which featured a great deal of melismatic writing. Following an apt keyboard setting of the chorale, J. S. Bach’s “Jesu, meine Freude,” with abundant and dramatic text painting, did not disappoint. Excepting the fugue in the 6th verse, where busy and flowing counterpoint understandably masked some of the text, musical clarity rang true.
The concert concluded with an encore, J.M. Bach’s “Unser Leben wahret siebenzig Jahr,” with four hidden sopranos providing a contrasting cantus firmus on “Ach herr lass dein lieb,” which J.S. Bach also used at the conclusion of his Johannes Passion.
Vox Luminis discoursed with utmost clarity and powerful rhetoric—a treat for all.