Bach: Actus Tragicus

Vox Luminis, Lionel Meunier
84:55
Alpha Classics Alpha 258
BWV 12, 106, 131, 150

I had known the Belgium-based group Vox Luminis as a very carefully balanced small choral group who specialised primarily in the repertoire of the seventeenth century. And now, following CDs of Schütz and Scheidt, the older Bachs, Fux, Kerll and Scarlatti, they are tackling Bach Cantatas. This CD is of four early cantatas with a gradated increase in scoring from the two recorders and viola da gambas of BWV 106, with four single voices and organ, through to the more recognisably ‘Italian’ style of BWV 12, with its distinct choruses, recitatives and arias that uses a full complement of strings with two viola parts, and has not only an oboe and bassoon, but a trumpet as well. With a more substantial score goes an increase in the number of singers from four in 106 to eight in parts of 150, and divided into solo and tutti very sensitively and effectively in 131 and using that full complement again in the distinct opening chorus and concluding chorale of 12.

With the increase in vocal scoring goes a fuller registration on the quite substantial organ, built for the church in Bornem in Belgium (where the recording took place in 2013) by Dominique Thomas after the style of Gottfried Silbermann. The organ continuo is based on a Principal chorus rather than a stopped flute, and this gives a clarity and firmness to the bass line. In 106 no 8’ string bass is employed, let alone a 16’. If a 16’ was used by Bach in the pre-Leipzig cantatas, I suspect it was most likely supplied by the organ, as here – rather sparingly but effectively – in the closing bars of 131, for example. The sound of the final chorale in 12, Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan, where the descant line is entrusted to the slide trumpet and the first violin and a full chorus to mixture with a 16’ pedal are employed on the organ provides a thrilling climax to the recording. This organ is a fine instrument by an excellent builder (I have played a number of his instruments and rate him highly) and plays at 440 rather than the 460+ of the Chorton in Weimar, so there are some complexities in matching wind instruments to the pitch of the organ and strings. For example, the recorders of 106 must be playing in F on A=392hz instruments, and the oboe and bassoon in 131 must play in A at 392 as well. But how does the bassoon play so beautifully in 150? Bach wrote the fagotto part in D, but the strings play in B at 440; does the bassoonist play a 415 French-style instrument in C – it certainly sounds a fine bottom B! And what do they do in 12? There is no information on the instruments and pitches other than the (full) documentation of the organ, and liner-notes really should give us these basic and important – to practitioners – details. There are full texts and French and English translations, and the essay by Gilles Cantagrel, like for the A Nocte Temporis  CD reviewed in December, is engaging for its insights on the interplay between theology, musicology and performance practice.

But it is the firm, robust and yet flexible sound of the singers, especially when singing together, that characterises these performances. For once, singers are approaching Bach cantatas with a sense of understanding where they have come from, what is the hinterland behind the cantatas and the performance style required. Often we hear Bach cantatas performed by singers who have reached back behind their 21st-century formation as singers and have more or less learned to discard some of their singing teachers’ conception of what solo singers ought to sound like. When this happens, the results are more or less successful as singers try to make a living and adapt to singing in a historically informed way as well as doing what most conductors still expect of a ‘soloist’. I valued the fine recordings of these early cantatas by the Purcell Quartet with Emma Kirkby, Michael Chance, Charles Daniels and Peter Harvey greatly when they came out in the early 2000s, but that was still a coro made up of four distinct ‘solo’ voices, that has remained the one-to-a-part standard in this country.

But Vox Luminis have approached these early Bach cantatas from the style of ensemble singing they have created for Bach’s 17th-century predecessors. This means that the ensemble sound, like that of the organ, is robust, but open voiced rather than ‘produced’. Not everyone will like it, but (to me) it offers an unrivalled blend and clarity. You can get a glimpse of how it is achieved on the useful Youtube video that Lionel Meunier has produced to accompany this venture.

This style of intimate attention to each others voice production as well as to the phrasing and diction is well illustrated, and makes for a style of music-making that has more in common with a viol consort playing to each other.

Some of the individual singers offer moments of great insight too: Vox Luminis have drawn in Reinoud van Mechelen, the singer/director of A Nocte Temporis  (CD Alpha 252, reviewed in December) to sing with them in 131 and 12, and that sets a new standard for Vox Luminis’ solo contributions, which are always musical, clear as a bell and beautifully phrased. I particularly like the alto as well, Daniel Elgersma, who has the particularly strong lower notes of a true haute-contre, which you rarely get with an English cathedral-style male alto. For me, as so often the only vocal query I have is with the soprano line. Excellent though the singers of Vox Luminis are, they do not have quite the edge of boy trebles like Leopold Lampelsdorfer singing in Eichorn’s Weihnachtsoratorium  I – III (VKJK 1238) or Jonty Ward in Higginbottom’s Mozart Requiem (NCR 1383), for example.

You can tell that in spite of the lack of some basic information in the liner notes, I rate the approach of Vox Luminis both vocally and instrumentally highly. This is great music-making, and the ease with which the sensible tempi changes are managed without any overt conducting as well as the cohesion and coherence of the style that make the texts the focus of the performances sets a new benchmark in the way we are learning to approach Bach Cantatas.

David Stancliffe