Vox Luminis - Biber: Requiem - Gramophone

Biber’s F minor Requiem of 1692 has had a decent spray of recordings, with couplings ranging from the composer’s own instrumental music (Pickett; L’Oiseau-Lyre, 6/94) to assorted reflections on death (McCreesh; Archiv, 2/05). For their new recording, Vox Luminis and the Freiburger Barockconsort have dispensed with specific historical or geographical connections and surrounded it with music by three contemporaries without any apparent links to Biber: two Lutheran motets by Christoph Bernhard, a typically German deep-textured string sonata by Johann Michael Nicolai, and a motet and sonata by Johann Joseph Fux, music director at the Viennese court. These are rarities on record all right, linked by a rich and serious tone well suited to Vox Luminis’s familiar strengths. It is a pleasure to find Lionel Meunier’s marvellous ensemble devoting time to them.

Bernhard’s Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener, a gloss on the Song of Simeon, has something of the calm splendour of a French grand motet, while Tribularer si nescirem is a hymn to Christ’s mercy that opens with over a minute of madrigalian harmonic wrangling on its opening word. Fux’s rather old-fashioned, Venetian-style Sonata is light and colourful, and his Omnis terra, another motet for voices and instruments, is a sing-song ray of light to end the programme with a Purcellian lilt.

In the middle of all these sits the Biber, given out with typical care for expressive beauty by Vox Luminis. This is not a Requiem packed with musical incident, which in any case would hardly have stood out in the echoing spaces of Salzburg Cathedral, its probable place of first performance. Rather, it relies on maintaining the dignified and sombre simplicity of texture established at the outset by voices with strings and trombones, only occasionally breaking out into more active word-painting in the ‘Dies irae’ or at ‘de poenis inferni’ (‘the bottomless pit’). Even there, however, these performers preserve the music’s poise and tenderness, while keeping it alive with nicely judged momentum; this piece has been called ‘dreary’ in these pages, but no movement outstays its welcome here. The firmer timbres of Pickett or the grander drama of McCreesh are valid alternatives, but admirers of Vox Luminis will know already to expect something heart-warming from them.

01 April 2021