The Belgian period vocal ensemble Vox Luminis brought its North American tour to a close on Saturday with “The Bach Dynasty,” a set of less-familiar music by members of J.S. Bach’s family, plus a concluding cantata by Johann Sebastian himself, for the Boston Early Music Festival at First Church, Congregational on Saturday.
In rough-hewn terms, Vox Luminis’s 11 singers performed with a clear tone that de-emphasizes vibrato. Artistic Director Lionel Meunier (towering head and shoulders above the rest) lightly conducted from within the lineup of singers, while anchoring the music with his own vocal bass line. A portatif organ (played by Anthony Romaniuk) and a viola de gamba (Ricardo Rodriguez Miranda) provided the only accompaniment. Frequent shifts in the lineup of singers and their placement across the space drove the timbral changes, and the ensemble made stellar use of the church’s acoustics for timing and placement effects. For example, the opening “Unser Leben ist ein Schatten” (“Our life on Earth is a shadow”) placed half of the double chorus in a distant corridor, while others sent musician to the back of the sanctuary, sides, and balcony.
Continuous presentation, save for intermission, formed an interesting conceit for this concert. The portatif continued to play after each of the vocal pieces concluded, preventing the audience from applauding and covering the physical rearrangement of the other musicians. The attacca traversal maintained a stately mood, but clearly left some audience members wanting to applaud.
Vox Luminis has performed “Bach Dynasty” since 2016, when the New York Times called it “revelatory,” referring to a set of rediscovered Bach family music compositions. (The scores were looted from the Berlin Sing-Akademie during World War II and, in 1999, rediscovered in the Ukrainian State Archive. ) While many of these compositions have now been introduced to local audiences by other ensembles, the program overall retains an air of novelty. Some of the highlights included Johann Michael Bach’s “Nun treten wir ins neue Jahr” (“Now we enter the new year”), Johann Christoph Bach’s “Der Mensch, vom Weibe geboren” (“Man, born of Woman”) featuring an excellent mezzo-soprano Victoria Cassano), and the closer, J. S. Bach’s “Jesu, meine Freude” (BWV 227; “Jesus, my joy”).
The use of multiple countertenors and extensive one-on-a-part singing gave a distinctive timbre to the evening. Individual voices were frequently featured in alternation, such as in the rippling vocal runs on “Freude” (“joy”) in Johann Michal Bach’s “Sei, lieber Tag, wilkommen” (“Welcome, beloved day”). Unfortunately, a lack of headshots and individual credits in the printed program makes it difficult to acknowledge these individual singers. Their talents were especially on exhibit in the delicate interweaving of two double-choir quartets in Johann Michael Bach’s “Herr, ich warte auf dein Heil” (“Lord, I await your salvation”). As performed, the piece made great use of stereo effects and intricately intertwining vocal lines, recalling J.S. Bach’s Magnificat and several of his cantatas.
The pacing suffered somewhat from pieces with similar affects being clustered together, yet it allowed “Jesu, meine Freude” particularly to shine in relative terms, as the cantata has a built-in pacing that the arrangement of other, shorter works does not. The singers also added a touch of the melodramatic to certain numbers, with a particular lilt to the “r”s in the movement “Trozt dem alten Drachen” (“Defy the old dragon!”) that added a touch of Halloween to the deliciously rendered five-voice fugue. Joining those lesser examples to the more familiar favorite, cast welcome new light on an old musical friend.
Basil Considine is the Twin Cities Arts Reader‘s Performing Arts Editor and its Senior Classical Music and Drama Critic; he remains an occasional contributor to The Boston Music Intelligencer.