Vox Luminis - Kantaten - MusicWeb International

In this CD, Lionel Meunier and his vocal and instrumental ensemble Vox Luminis open our ears to three composers before JSB with the name Bach. It starts with Johann Michael, a first cousin of JSB’s dad who also became JSB’s father in law. Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ (tr. 1) is a geistliches Konzert (sacred concerto) for SATB chorus and an instrumental ensemble of 3 violins, 2 violas, violone and basso continuo. Its majestic sonata (i.e. sinfonia), with its ornate adornment of the violins, rippling with semi and demisemiquavers, made me think of Monteverdi. The work also provides a very clear illustration of structural progression from homophony to fugue. The sinfonia opening is chordal: if vocal, it would be a chorale; the opening phrase, apart from its ending, is the same as that used by JSB for the chorale ‘Erkenne mich, mein Hüter’ in the St. Matthew Passion, well-known in English as the hymn ‘O sacred head, surrounded’. The violins’ adornments introduce imitative counterpoint. Meunier’s voices in the opening chorus appeal the title words, ‘O stay with us, Lord Jesus Christ’ with growing emotive power, the closing two “Herr Jesu Christ” first a loud summons, then a soft prayer with a vision of the hoped-for comfort. The chorus is homophonic but not homorhythmic: at times the entries are tiered, for instance the second “ach bleib”, where the tenor and bass entries are dovetailed by the altos after a half beat delay (1:06), and then at two beats delay for the codetta, ‘weil es nun Abend’ (1:58), ushering in the evening. This tiering creates a kind of intermediate stage between homophony and fugue. But still a real surprise is the third section, “Dein göttlich Wort, das helle Licht”, “Your holy word, this radiant light” (2:22), a lightly articulated, semiquaver packed fugato, backed by violins, soon skimming top A briefly in the voices at ‘radiant’. This is followed by the stark colours and chromaticism of a second homophonic section, “In dieser letzten betrübten Zeit”, “In earthly life, full of agony” (3:25) before a second fugal section, “dass wir dein Wort und Sakrament …” (4:24) a closing prayerful “that we keep word and sacrament pure and holy till our very end”. Here the contrapuntal tiered entries of the choral parts give the feeling of a community of pockets of heartfelt worship, the recurrence of “rein behalten”, “keep pure”, the countersubject that creates a more strictly fugal section, a tender series of individual pledges. The effect is generally chaste, but you remember that central spark of radiance.

I compare this with the 1986 recording by the Rheinische Kantorei and Musica Antiqua Koln/Reinhardt Goebel (Archiv 4745522, now licensed to Presto). His introduction is quieter, sweeter, but just a different kind of luxury. His “ach bleib” tiered entries are clearer and more urgent, but his third section, while vocally enthusiastic, is a touch strained. His second homophonic section is a little richer, I’m guessing because he uses contraltos rather than Meunier’s countertenors who sound more forlorn. Goebel’s quieter approach in this section is just as effective. The question is, do you prefer it more sorrowful as with Goebel, or more searingly dramatic as with Meunier? In the final section, I much prefer Meunier’s slower and beautifully shaped humility. Goebel, timing it at 1:11 to Meunier’s 2:01, the reason his overall timing is nearly a minute faster than Meunier’s, brings an urgency with far less hope of salvation, the “rein behalten” statements cursory.

Next comes Johann Christoph, the “profound composer” most admired by JSB among his relatives, his father’s first cousin and the brother of Johann Michael. Die Furcht des Herren (tr. 2) was written for the installation of the Eisenach city council. Meunier brings to a resplendent Sinfonia a sense of rightness as well as decorum in its easy flow in its sequences before the soprano of Choir 1, Wisdom, sung by Kristen Witmer, proclaims, again with the smooth assurance of rightness the title text, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’ Choir 1 consists of characters, the others being the Youngest City Treasurer, soprano 2, the Youngest Mayor, alto, the Oldest City Treasurer, tenor and the Oldest Mayor, bass. The surprise is when the Oldest Mayor starts a prayer, the others and a Choir 2, SATB, the rest of the city council, therefore on this CD all Vox Luminis, respond with alacrity and enthusiasm, the sopranos having repeated top Gs in the second acclamation. While this is fast, decoration is still an enlivening feature, such as the semiquaver runs for most parts at “bereitet” from 3:11, celebrating that God has preparedhumanity and the closing flourish on “richten” (3:36), the avowal to judge with a righteous heart, “richten” helpfully somehow lacking the sanctimonious tinge of the English word. “Gib mir die Weisheit”, “Give me the wisdom” (3:42) is then politely presented by the characters in tiered entries, so the picture I get is of a succession of beggars eager for a handout before a slightly more formal rest of the council add their request. Wisdom emerges from what has hitherto seemed a refined shell to rejoice that, “The Kings rule through me” (4:05), with 5 accompanying instruments echoing to confirm her true regality and Witmer takes full advantage of her opportunity; but quieter, yet much repeated and rising in tessitura, is the emphasis on “setzen des Recht”, laying down the laws which the councillors do. The others now repeat their claims in more chastened fashion. The lady Wisdom points out that Reason is also part of her ability to give good counsel and the others’ petitions are now requested in the spirit of affectionate gratitude. The Youngest City Treasurer, Zsuzsi Tóth for me a little too sheepishly in this recording (6:09), sings that she’s low and humble, though I must commend her lovely top Gs in the “Give me” refrains. Wisdom sings she can make her a person of action. Our youngster then confesses she’s too lowly to understand justice and the law, but Wisdom can be of practical benefit there as well. A prayer which began as a formality for a vaguely desirable accomplishment has now glimpsed something of an action plan.

Again, I compare it with the Goebel recording. He’s rather faster than Meunier, taking the timing up until the closing da capo, of which more shortly, his is 6:18 to Meunier’s 7:24. This makes for a more assertive Sinfonia: proud and lightly dancing. Wisdom’s opening arioso is solemn and reverent, the responding tutti disciplined but lacking Meunier’s eagerness, appearing a little robotic in its strict rhythms. The “Give me the wisdom” chorus is light and quick and so has an element of rapaciousness but, unlike Vox Luminis, it keeps that same character throughout. Wisdom’s later ariosos, sung by Maria Zedelius, are clear but not as vivid as Witmer’s, though Goebel’s timorous yet well projected Youngest City Treasurer, a nice paradox, makes a better contrast with a confident yet encouraging Zedelius. Goebel interprets differently the da capo instruction at the end of the piece, choosing to repeat Wisdom’s arioso at the beginning where Meunier repeats the “Give me the wisdom” portion of the closing chorus.

Now we go back to the earliest we can, Ich danke dir, Gott (tr. 3) being the only surviving vocal work by Heinrich Bach who was the father of Johann Christoph and Johann Michael. Meunier’s Sinfonia is reverent but also celebratory and florid, as by the end there have been semiquavers pulsating in all five string parts. We’re pretty much in the world of Monteverdi in his modern style. The piece’s title words, ‘I thank you, God’ are then given a hefty homophonic tutti setting from which the vocal soloists, the favoriti,escape in imitative writing, soon brandishing their own semiquaver flurries to illustrate “for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (1:17). Effectively this is fioriture writing scattered amongst the favoriti solo voices and pairs of violins and violas constantly in dialogue, so the focus is in turn on clusters of individual sparks which make up the glory of the whole creation. The tutti, achieved by adding a ripieno chorus, is reserved for formal acknowledgement that the individual is just part of the entity of the wonderful works of God. The homophony is of blazing affirmation, the imitative material of joyous scintillance. The piece is effective because the setting is as straightforward as the text and its delivery relatively brief.

Again, I compare this with the Goebel recording. His Sinfonia is lighter but lacks Meunier’s festive, welcoming swing: Meunier’s semiquavers dance where Goebel’s seem just arty. Goebel’s opening tutti is the most imposing moment of his performance from which his soloists escape lightly, their semiquavers excellently articulated as they sound thrilled, even gleeful in the recognition of creativity. There is, however, a disadvantage: this lightness becomes predominant, which short-changes the strength of affirmation of the tuttis. Meunier provides a better contrast of exuberance and fealty.

We return to Johann Michael for Herr, der König freuet sich (tr. 4), setting text from Psalm 21, O Lord, the King rejoices in your strength which will become familiar a generation later in Handel’s 1727 coronation anthem, The King shall rejoice. JCB’s distribution of vocal and instrumental forces is similar to Heinrich’s in the previous track, but his palette is more varied, more inclined to solo voices and so moving towards later cantatas’ liking for separate movements featuring vocal solos and choruses. The Sinfonia is sunny and serene: how consistently throughout this CD Meunier finds exactly the right tempo for Sinfonias, this one moving forward beamingly without any detriment to the detailing of the opulent filigree work of the two violins which is to be a frequent pleasure. The opening verse is a dialogue between solo bass and all the voices: the bass clarifies the text regally while the rest reveal the outcome for his subjects, with lots of rhythmic emphasis on “fröhlich” it actually seems to be frolicking. Now a bass verse in gratitude that the King has been showered with blessings, sweet luxuries from the sound of it displayed by those two violins and then briefly yet radiantly confirmed by the tutti voices. Next a tenor verse gently appreciative in a melisma the “langes” nature of the life the King has been granted. Now a countertenor verse for which the entire ensemble of five strings provides a luxuriant surrounding which nevertheless enables the voice to witness with humility the “Lob und Schmuck”, “praise and splendour” the Lord has brought the King. But the understanding that these blessings will be for ever requires the favoriti and then the ripienovoices to swell the song in accordance with the value, really breaking into dance at “mit Freuden”, because the rejoicing is when the King sees the Lord’s face, a verse which makes clear that the King’s living for ever is spiritual, and it’s a pity Handel didn’t set it! The return of the opening chorus and solo, the bass and organ continuo with extra flourishes of ornament, effectively frames a piece not otherwise currently on CD.

It’s back to Johann Christoph for Herr, wende dich und sei mir gnädig, almost a theatrical scena for the purpose of spiritual instruction. Its text blends verses from the Psalms and Book of Job which the knowledgeable listener will appreciate recognizing. Its opening Sinfonia from Meunier is sober yet also has a glint of autumnal light in the high tessitura of the first violin. Three elderly folks, in turn soprano, tenor and alto soloists, pray in a chorus of tiered entries for Christ’s mercy. Vox Luminis are humble, affectionate, hopeful. But they immediately individually become impatient (tr. 5, 1:37), then collectively confirm the nub of the matter, “das Grab is da”, “My grave is here” (1:50). The bass soloist, as you’ll remember from JSB’s Passion settings, is Christ, who responds in comely, roseate fashion, “Seek that you find my grace all sufficient” and he gets his own string ensemble accompaniment the old codgers don’t. The instruction is easier to receive than practice, so we get little ariosos of failing faculties and fear of what’s to come. Very humanly comes the stark chorus “Mein Gott, nimm mich nicht weg”, “My God, don’t take me now” (4:25) but Christ’s response, in this case Sebastian Myrus, the short singer on the far right of the booklet’s rear cover photograph, is expansive, assured and serene, ending with a bottom D. Our folks admit they’re chastened, realize they’re saved from Hell and start praising God in skipping rhythms, at which point they get strings’ accompaniment! Nothing could be simpler than the beaming closing chorale, but its surprise is the extraordinarily jazzy high-jinks for the two accompanying violins, delivered here with stylish and grateful relish.

I compare the 2009 live recording with the soloists Clare Wilkinson, Nicholas Mulroy, James Gilchrist and Matthew Brook and the English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner (Soli Dei Gloria SDG 715). His Sinfonia shows more crafted articulation, but the effect is more studied, less raptly meditative than Meunier. Gardiner’s voices are more operatic, more consciously expressive and therefore also more worldly. I find this latter characteristic, even in Matthew Brook’s Christ, where it’s less appropriate, makes his extended arioso a touch hectoring. There are many memorable moments: the vocal trio’s refrain ‘My grave is here’ is like picturing a beautifully sculpted monument; Clare Wilkinson enjoying the chromaticism of her withering (3:21 in Meunier); Gardiner spotlighting JCB’s harmonic distinctiveness more than Meunier; the lovely imploring descent asking Christ to bend down and listen and then the movingly sotto voce plea, “Lord, please answer me!” Gardiner makes the change to a faster tempo and loud dynamic for the closing chorus and chorale more startling and the singing more robust. What do I feel on returning to Meunier? I feel upper voices that convey more distress and earnest desire to put things right, aided by a church acoustic. There’s always a bit of a shiver about “My grave is here” as well as firmly facing reality. “Give your servant strength” (4:48) is a fervent wish where with Gardiner’s voices it amounts to a command. I prefer Meunier’s lighter approach to the fast tempo passages of the closing chorus which balances better with that of his strings’ accompaniment and indeed makes those voices now seem like dancing angels joining the ranks of those instruments who were before only serving Christ. There aren’t the memorable moments of Gardiner but for me Meunier’s account has more spirituality.

Now we come to Johann Sebastian Bach in one of his earliest sacred vocal works, Christ lag in Todesbanden, a ‘chorale cantata’ based on Martin Luther’s Easter chorale. The text is all 7 verses of the chorale and the music is derived from its melody. Its Sinfonia (tr. 6) incorporates motifs from the first two phrases of the melody. From Meunier it’s quite a startling résumé of passion, resurrection and effect: stately, sad descents turn gradually to positive, rising phrases and then a flurry of semiquavers in the first violin which mix rhetoric and pathos: a joyful outcome, but why did this have to happen? The first verse (tr. 7) gives the clear message with the Easter hymn as the sopranos’ cantus firmus, around whose sustained notes the lower voices and instruments weave fast notes of counterpoint of an intricacy not previously heard on this CD. But after the first statement the lower parts also introduce the text, so you experience its emotive effect, a hubbub of excited, exalted voices, such as the pressing urgency of “Gott loben”, “Praise God”, in the altos (2:13) and soon lots of semiquavers on “fröhlich”, “joyful”, scattered around voices and instruments, before the text itself is emphasised by the sopranos above them. The verse concludes with hallelujahs begun by the lower parts but then taken up by the sopranos too, and in the second alla breve, swifter speed, fugal section (3:07), a shower of dancing fast cross rhythms, in which Meunier delights, fills the church.

I compare the 2017 recording by the Collegium Vocale Gent/Philippe Herreweghe (PHI LPH 030). Although the size of his ensemble is the same, Herreweghe’s account is more intimate and inward looking. The Sinfonia is meditative, at first cowed, then sweeter and the violin solo with stealth in its utterance, but never the public declaration that is Meunier’s. I feel I’m eavesdropping. Verse 1 evolves more steadily than Meunier’s, the cantus firmus a smooth overlay, yet the lower parts’ contributions earnestly involved, their jagged rhythms well contrasted with the sopranos’ smoothness. I like Herreweghe’s reverent, quieter approach which makes Meunier’s forthrightness seem more overtly didactic, but it comes at a cost of less energy in the lower parts and less clarity in the cantus firmus entries. These characteristics are also partly owing to Herreweghe’s use of wind parts, cornett and three trombones, doubling the voices as added for the work’s revival in 1725.  I find these a distraction, though they make the overall ambience more jubilant. Herreweghe’s semiquavers on “fröhlich”, while rhythmically clear, don’t have the emotive conviction of Meunier’s. Herreweghe’s hallelujahs begin formally, respectfully, but then lighten up in the alla breve section.

The second verse (tr. 8) features a duet in which the soprano solo leads and alto responds at two beats’ delay, with a reversal of this order towards the end. It’s a contritely reflective piece and you’re absorbed in the sad beauty of Meunier’s soloists until his soprano Zsuzsi Töth’s high tessitura at “und nahm uber uns Gewalt”, “and seized power over us” (2:06), sends the message purely yet piercingly home. The hallelujahs closing this verse are slow and swooning. Verse 3 (tr. 9) is for tenor solo who reveals Jesus as the hero who takes away Death’s power, Robert Buckland in an upbeat presentation of Luther’s melody beneath an ebullient descant for 2 violins save for an Adagio moment at “Tod’s Gestalt” to indicate an outward form of Death without sting is all that’s left. So now hallelujahs from the tenor take up the violins’ semiquavers. In Herreweghe’s second verse the soprano is doubled by soprano cornett, the alto by alto trombone. This makes the atmosphere more pained, but the projection of the text is thereby less evident and the human element of contrition blunted, though with fuller sound the chorale foundation is clearer. In verse 3, Herreweghe’s violins and tenor are for me over polite given the relief brought by the message and all those violin skipping semiquavers.

The central verse 4 (tr. 10) features another element of ingenuity and complexity. The cantus firmus is in the alto part while the tenors sing the first and sopranos the second lines of the hymn text simultaneously in counterpoint and in the same manner the third and fourth lines before changing to triple tiered presentation for the remaining verses, particularly effective at “ein Spott” (1:53), “a mockery” which Death has become. Meunier achieves generally fine textual and contrapuntal clarity, but for me the balance is marred a little by over supporting the cantus firmus with organ: I’d have preferred the altos to sing louder. Should, I also wonder, the beginning of the hallelujahs be more marked? They do, however, surprise, as they should, in their reflectiveness. Herreweghe delivers this verse more quietly than Meunier, as if a precious secret, yet the real swing he achieves in its projection is compelling and he also gets a clear cantus firmus without instrumental support. The interplay of the contrapuntal lines is admirably revealed and the hallelujahs are smooth and adoring.

Verse 5 (tr. 11) has a bass soloist with the full body of strings. For Meunier Sebastian Myrus makes a clear presentation of Luther’s hymn with dignity and solemnity, which contrasts provocatively with the graphic text, “Christ roasted in burning love”, and the regal backing and expansion from the strings and, at times voice, as at the melisma on “Kreuzes Stamm” (0:49), “Trunk of the cross”, emphasising the physicality of the sacrifice. Yet, in another contrast, Myrus’s hallelujahs are a refined dance. For Herreweghe Peter Kooij takes the opposite approach. His hallelujahs are an awakening of present celebration after a preceding hymn beautifully crafted with cadential ornamentation Myrus eschews, yet with the feel of recollection in tranquillity rather than Myrus’ present reliving.

Celebration continues in the sixth verse (tr. 12), a soprano solo leading and tenor responding first at eight beats’ delay, shortening thereafter. When the tenor enters the soprano goes immediately into descant, but the roles are reversed for the text’s second couplet. For Meunier soprano Zsuzsi Töth produces a stunning descant which tenor Philippe Froeliger can’t quite match. For Herreweghe the exact matching of Dorothee Mields and Thomas Hobbs, aided by Herreweghe’s lighter, less animated approach, is for me more satisfying; but in both accounts the hallelujahs, a succession of skipping quavers in triplets, with at first the tenor following the soprano, then both together, are a joy.

The final verse (tr. 13) is a classic presentation of the chorale in the SATB presentation familiar from those in the St Matthew Passion which JSB substituted in 1725 for the original verse 7, the latter no longer extant. The chorale is for the first time in a homophonic surround, but one in which you’re aware of the density of chordal support while two-thirds of the time passing notes maintain the flow of the expression. The importance of the upholding of faith is the message, made telling by the suspension in the alto part at “andern leben”, “to live differently” (0:55), reinforced by suspensions in the tenor and then alto parts in the one statement of Hallelujah before the resolution in E major, this time for keeps. Meunier presents this perfectly and you realize, as he said in an interview before a concert at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival that JSB, absorbing the music of his forebears, takes it to a higher level. Herreweghe, with a timing of 1:05 for this chorale in comparison with Meunier’s 1:32, seems relatively hasty and, as earlier, I feel the cornetti and trombones which double the voices distract from the presentation of the text.

This CD ends with Johann Christoph’s Es ehrub sich ein Streit because it’s an impossible act to follow, the late 17th century equivalent of Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory. It begins with a Sinfonia for strings to which Meunier brings a stately yet still flowing introduction, then is more active yet still serene, think of the end of Pachelbel’s Canon. Two bass soloists enter, one exactly following the other at an interval of two crotchet beats’, like two lines of infantry, to tell us there’s war in heaven. Things hot up with the entry of the drums and gradually a trumpet, two, three and only four when both choruses have arrived, again two beats’ apart, the two warring forces, in particular with shouts of “stritten”, “fought”. The trumpets and drums suddenly vanish and at “und siegeten nicht”, “and didn’t win”, the choruses, having previously held lines on one note, descend as if bowing in surrender. Meunier maintains a fairly steady but intense, forward moving manner with the discreet one hand movement he uses: on the back-cover photo he’s the tall guy second left of the timpani. The favoriti bandy about their five parts’ four-semiquaver figures on “funden”, an enthusiastic sweeping away of the defeated angels’ homes. The two basses return to identify the defeated enemy as Satan, the tutti forces signal the significance of “‘who did seduce the whole world” and Meunier gives full impact to the massive B flat chord on “verführet”, “seduced” (4:01) in a piece in C major: that’s distortion of the normal order.

The second part begins with a Sinfonia for all instruments, in a stricter cori spezzati manner than has hitherto been frequent: there’s more space given to the ‘choirs’, here of trumpets and drums on the one hand and strings on the other, individually. The tutti, including double chorus, then offer a hymn of praise for the victory and we’re in ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ territory like Handel’s Messiah was to be in 1742. The descending phrases, well brought out by Meunier, are now of sovereignty. The two choruses are in strict cori spezzati to affirm the sacrifice of “the blood of the Lamb” but the favoriti, now in imitative counterpoint, remind us of the sacrifice of soldiers, “And they loved not their lives” (7:15). The closing cori spezzati tutti is all exhilaration as Meunier scampers through the arrival of quaver rhythms for the voices, the violins and trumpets having semiquavers to shine.

Again, I compare this with the Goebel recording. Timing at 7:24 to Meunier’s 9:13, Goebel makes less impact through scampering throughout. The Sonata’s second section is attractively dance-like, but almost everything thereafter is lightly articulated, making the basses’ duet more conversation than firm statement and the trumpets and drums over favoured in the recording. The chorus has precision but lacks Meunier’s weight, “und siegeten nicht” is tossed off and “funden” swatted away in irritation rather than Meunier’s enjoyment. Goebel’s emphasis is on swinging rhythm without Meunier’s rounded emotional contrast.

MusicWeb International
30 December 2019