Vox Luminis, Lionel Meunier
St John’s, Smith Square, 18 December 2019
Attrib. Buxtehude? Magnificat BuxWV Anhang 1
Bach Nun komm der heiden Heiland BWV 61
Handel Dixit Dominus HWV 232
With the exception of Bach’s Advent cantata Nun komm der heiden Heiland, this was a St John’s, Smith Square Christmas Festival event refreshingly devoid of any specific reference to Christmas. The renown Belgian group Vox Luminis and their director, Lionel Meunier, made a very welcome return for a performance of music from German composers of the 17th and early 18th century, each writing in different styles and for different audiences.
The attribution to Buxtehude of the opening Magnificat anima mea is (according to a source very close to Vox Luminis) no longer appropriate, and the piece is now considered anonymous. It is just possible that it was by Buxtehude’s predecessor at Lübeck’s Marienkirche, but there is no specific evidence for this. Stylistically it could be either or, indeed, any number of North German organist/composers of the middle years of the 17th century. Lasting about 8 minutes, it is a delicate and elegant piece in triple time and making extensive use of hemiolas at the ends of phrases. It was accompanied by pairs of violins and violas, cello and organ. Passages for the full choir contrast with solos and semi-choruses of two or three singers. There is an emphasis on certain words, notable omnes generationes, Fecit potentiam and inanes, the latter sung with a lengthy melisma by a bass soloist.
Bach’s Advent cantata Nun komm der heiden Heiland (BWV 61) was first performed in Weimar in on the first Sunday in Advent in 1714, and again in Leipzig shortly after taking up his post there in 1723. Advent marks the beginning of the Lutheran liturgical year, and Nun komm der heiden Heiland is the first chorale in any Lutheran hymn book, and in Bach’s own collection of chorale preludes, the Orgelbüchlein. It opens in triumphant style with a chorale fantasia. Each of the voices enters in turn to a jagged accompanimental figure before bursting into an energetic fugal section. There followed recitatives and arias for tenor, bass and soprano before the concluding Amen.
Whereas the earlier anonymous Magnificat used repetition to emphasise words, Bach uses more dramatic word-painting, notably in the passage I stand at the door and knock and in the wide leaps of the obligato cello line of the gentle soprano aria Offne dich (Open wide, my heart and spirit).
Handel’s Dixit Dominus was composed in 1707, seven years before Bach’s Nun komm der heiden Heiland. At this stage in his career, Handel was still a German composer, albeit one living and composing in Catholic Italy. It represents Handel’s absorption in the Italian style, and in the musical world of opera, something he had experienced earlier in Hamburg. It is an extravagantly joyous work, far removed from the Lutheran music of Buxtehude and Bach. Like Bach’s Nun komm, it opens with a chorale fantasia, the distinctive little hiatus in the instrumental introduction a foretaste of the drama to follow. Another florid obligato from cellist Eduard Catalan underlies the following alto aria Virgam vistutis before the gently flowing soprano aria Tecum principium. The sequence of four dramatic choruses that follow are the musical heart of the piece and an indication of Handel’s skill at portraying drama.
Like Solomon’s Knot a couple of days earlier, Vox Luminis perform without a conductor, both relying on very subtle indications from their respective directors or members of the orchestra. As well as allowing for more direct communication with the audience, the communication between the musicians is also compelling. I have reviewed Vox Luminis from their earliest days and have always been very impressed with their approach to music-making. Both vocally and instrumentally, they were again on top form, particularly in the Handel. I particularly like the organ playing of Haru Kitamika, whose often florid continuo contributions were always appropriate and well-balanced with the musical texture.
Both Bach and Handel were born the same year and were very familiar with the music of Buxtehude, who they both visited in Lübeck in their youth. They possibly had an interest in eventually succeeding the then aged organist/composer, despite the proviso of having to marry his eldest, and as yet unmarried, daughter, about 15 years older than either of them. It is interesting to reflect on what would have happened if either of them had actually succeeded in taking that post, perhaps specifically for the development of musical life in London if Handel had settled there.