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.