Classical review: Vox Luminis/Meunier, Wigmore Hall, London

5.00

 

No family has ever rivalled that of the Thuringian Bachs for inherited musical talent: they were all either town pipers, organists, or instrument makers, and they frequently gathered together to sing and play; Johann Sebastian, though the greatest by a mile, was by no means the first significant Bach composer. He was so proud of his antecedents that he compiled his own genealogy, and he possessed a collection of motets by a medley of Bachs.

Six of those motets, plus two of Sebastian’s own, formed the programme of the Belgian Baroque ensemble Vox Luminis under their director Lionel Meunier. It permitted fascinating comparisons as to how each Bach approached this choral form, and it also brought into high relief the particular church-music style which prevailed in Lutheran Germany: the religion itself may have been severe, but – following Luther’s injunction to give the word of God ‘life and truth’ – the music itself was intensely dramatic and colourful.

The first two motets came from Sebastian’s great-uncle Johann Bach, with his ‘Our life is a shadow’ reflecting people’s worn-down mood after thirty years of incessant war. For his ‘Jesu, my joy’ the singers divided to create what was described in Johann’s day as a ‘Fernchor’, a ‘distant choir’ serving as an echo, to charming effect. By now one could appreciate what it is that has earned this ensemble their celebrity in Europe, even if they are almost totally unknown in Britain (this concert was their UK debut). Their sound is warm and resonant, and they sing this 300-year-old music with the freshness and ardour of true believers; apart from the occasional nod from Meunier they are conductor-less, and therefore operate like chamber musicians. When they came to ‘Hold fast what you have’, a labyrinthine dialogue between two choirs by Sebastian’s second-uncle Johann Michael, they set up a momentum so infectious that the motet’s farewell to life acquired urgent immediacy.

As John Eliot Gardiner argues in his new book ‘Music in the Castle of Heaven’, it was Sebastian’s great good fortune to be orphaned early, and to be accordingly apprenticed to his inspiring elder cousin Johann Christoph. And the motets we heard by that composer reinforced the point: his ‘Be not afraid’ was an astonishingly concentrated choral utterance, technically as daring as the great ‘Jesu, my joy’ by Johann Sebastian himself, which, with its whirling fugues and sublimely beautiful interwoven melodies, brought the evening to a rousing close.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea