The week-long St John’s Smith Square Easter Festival concluded with a rare appearance by the Belgian early music ensemble Vox Luminis, offering choral gems from two masters of the German Baroque. While Covid infections caused the withdrawal of two members from the group, replacements ensured the show would go on and the afternoon programme remained unchanged.
Heinrich Schütz’s Musikalische Exequien might seem an unusual choice for an Easter day outing, yet when the work was conceived in 1636 amid the tumult of the Thirty Years’ War, Lutherans supposedly considered death to be the true fulfilment of their earthly life. If, then, life’s completion can be equated to triumph, an Easter day rendition is perhaps not so curious. Certainly, this performance was not without a sense of exuberance in its exchanges between solo voices and tutti forces, expressive harmonies and rhythmic vitality pointed up. It was refreshing to see twelve singers, supported by chamber organ and violine, given discreet direction by the group’s founder (and bass) Lionel Meunier from within the voices – leaving musicianship to take care of itself and allowing singers who can work out for themselves when to shine or merge into the background. Many of them know this work well; it is one for which Vox Luminis won a prestigious Gramophone recording award in 2012.
Amongst the many felicities of this performance, I enjoyed two tenor voices giving expression to Christ’s redemptive power in florid writing reminiscent of Monteverdi whose music Schütz would have encountered in Venice on the second of his two ‘study’ visits. There was some heartfelt singing from a pair of basses when conveying the mixed blessing of reaching threescore years and ten, with telling pauses added for dramatic effect. Buoyant choral exchanges and dance-like rhythms brought a visceral sense of joy for the Resurrection, and the closing ‘Song of Simeon’, with three of the singers and a viola da gamba up in a gallery, made for an expressive farewell. If I had any caveats at all it would be the lack of a wider dynamic range. There’s more to great choral singing than flawless blend and intonation. Vox Luminis have that and more, but the ability to reduce tone down to the faintest of projected whispers seems to elude most groups, and if that sounds like a challenge, maybe a vocal ensemble will rise to the bait.
J.S. Bach wrote two church cantatas for Easter Sunday, of which Christ lag in Todesbanden BWV4 is believed to date from 1707. There is also Der Himmel lacht (first performed in 1715), a work that originally formed the first version of the Easter Oratorio written as a cantata for Easter Sunday in Leipzig on 1st April 1725. The elaborately constructed setting of Martin Luther’s popular hymn, ‘Christ ist erstanden’, that is BWV4 remains justifiably popular, and this performance was beautifully shaped, artfully showcasing Bach’s ingenuity, its variation design illuminated with exceptional clarity, and sharp focus given to the text’s concerns over man’s powerlessness over death and the joy of the resurrection. The opening verse outlining Christ’s rising was forthright in its delivery and the closing ‘hallelujah’ sections crisply delivered. Much tenderness was in evidence in a perfectly matched soprano and alto duet where voices entered almost by stealth; their closing pianissimo left you virtually gasping for air. Elsewhere, violin and violine provided athletic support and solo passages were clearly defined, the whole performed with a polished refinement, amply illustrating Bach’s fusion of technical wizardry and expressive utterance.
Earlier, Vox Luminis gave an assured account of Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (Actus Tragicus) BWV106, its opening Sinfonia beguiling in its intimacy: organ, two each of viola da gamba and recorders all admirably balanced. The acceptance of death in the opening chorus was sung with suitable emphasis and welcome recognition of the afterlife given grateful expression by each of the soloists. Nowhere was this more memorably articulated than in the joyful anticipation of heavenly paradise that forms the arioso movement for bass and alto, its serenity wonderfully caught, and demonstrating unequivocally just how much less is more.
Vox Luminis, Lionel Meunier (director)
Schütz – Musikalische Exequien; J.S. Bach – Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (Actus Tragicus) BWV106, Christ lag in Todesbanden BWV4.
St John’s Smith Square, London; Sunday 17th April 2022.