I heard a program of (mostly) J. S. Bach motets performed by Vox Luminis, a Belgian early music ensemble. The concert was presented by a concert series called Music Before 1800.
Their conductor is Lionel Meunier, who was also one of two basses in the ensemble. I thought this was a little quirky - - if the conductor is in the ensemble, he/she is usually at the keyboard. But Meunier did a lovely job of conducting with this folder and he had a great advantage in that he stood, Hagrid-like, head and shoulders taller than anyone else in the ensemble.
Can we agree that Johann Sebastian Bach was the greatest composer who ever lived? Other composers might have written more beautiful music (Mozart), others might have written music that speaks more directly to me (Messaien), but no one wrote greater music. Some of his works are better than others, but every piece I've heard is the work of genius.
This is the way I want to hear Bach: graceful, full-bodied, and sensuous, but with no loss of clarity. There were twelve singers in the ensemble and they didn't all sing all the time, usually just one person singing each part. That gives a delightful diamond-sharp precision to the music.
The program had five pieces, four of which I'd sung in college, and what a joy to hear them, performed on such a high level. The first piece was "Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf." Swift, sunny, and the closing chorale was unbearably tender, it brought a tear to my eye.
The next piece was *Komm, Jesu, Komm,* sung with urgency and drama. They had a beautiful way of illustrating the harmonic suspensions, really wringing the most of them. We had a new soprano in Choir 2 on this piece, and I liked her a lot, her singing was a little more juicy.
The final piece on the first half was *Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied.* Faster than I expected - - it really danced, and the tempo highlighted the virtuosic vocal writing. At a certain point, it's easier faster. The final fugue was really exciting and REALLY fast. It opens with the basses singing the fugue subject, followed by the tenors singing it in their key. The basses started it, confident and assured. The tenors came in and they sounded confident and assured, but they were staring at each other from across the stage with just a touch of desperation.
The second half opened with a piece I hadn't heard of, *Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn.* The program notes said that it's not known for sure if this was written by J. S. Bach or by his son Johann Christian Bach. It didn't taste like J. S. Bach to me, it didn't have that glow of genius I talked about earlier. Perfectly pleasant music, yes, but not extraordinary. A table wine, not a sublime vintage. The clue that, for me, sealed the deal was the fact that the star of the piece was fixated on the first line, without any notable development. Not really a J. S. Bach thing.
The concert ended with J. S. Bach's longest motet, *Jesu, meine Freude.* This is the only one of the motets I've sung more than once, and I've sung it THREE TIMES. It's not my favorite, I find *Der Geist hilft* and *Singet* to be so much more fun to sing. *Jesu, meine Freude* is hard work. I think conductors like to program it because it's a challenge for them.
But I have to say, hearing it sung by such a divine ensemble, I enjoyed it quite a lot! They made the most of the contrasts and highlighted the Alban Berg-esque structure of the piece. The vocal honors for the whole concert went to a counter tenor in this piece, in the low-voiced trio near the end, "So aber Christus in euch ist." He sang those those scales and roulades with luscious, warm tone. I just Googled him and was thrilled to see that he's the son of counter tenor Michael Chance, who was a big deal thirty years ago.
Here's a video of Vox Luminis singing Gesualdo. Oh yes.