Vox Luminis: Schütz & Bach

Schütz & Bach
Vox Luminis, Lionel Meunier
St John’s, Smith Square. Easter Sunday, 17 April 2022

Chorale: Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin
SchützMusikalische Exequien, Op.7
BachActus Tragicus, BWV 106. Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4

Regular visitors to St John’s, Smith Square in pre-Covid days, the Belgium group Vox Luminis made a very welcome return to celebrate the 350th anniversary of Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) with a performance of his Musikalische Exequien, a piece they recorded around 10 years ago to great acclaim, and frequently perform. They contrasted this with Bach’s Actus Tragicus and Christ lag in Todesbanden to bring to a close the St John’s, Smith Square Easter Festival.

Schütz spent the bulk of his career in the court of the Elector of Saxony in Dresden. His biggest influence came from the earlier time he spent in Italy, studying with Gabrieli and Monteverdi at a time when the Renaissance was beginning to morph into the Baroque. It was that Italian influence that spread throughout Germany, influencing many composers including the leading North German organist composer Matthias Weckmann. The Musikalische Exequien demonstrated the move from Renaissance polyphony to Baroque melodic development. It was composed in 1636 for the funeral of Prince Heinrich II von Reuss of Gera, nicknamed ‘Posthumus’ as his father died before he was born. He made detailed plans for his own funeral, including an elaborately decorated copper sarcophagus which was rediscovered in the 1990s. He knew Schütz well and had probably already commissioned him to write music for the funeral. Schütz’s dedication to his local ruler reflected a strong measure of mutual respect.

The funeral started, as did this performance, with the Lutheran chorale Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin, here sung from the side aisles of St John’s. The Musikalische Exequien is in three parts, opening with an extended “Concert in the form of a German Mass”. Although it does not use the traditional words of the Mass, the influence of the Kyrie in the opening section is clear, with the thrice-repeated choir refrain “have mercy on us”. The opening intonation is to the words “Naked came I from my mother’s womb”.

The second part of the ‘Concert’ is what makes this an appropriate piece for the afternoon of Easter Sunday, as it reflects the resurrection of Jesus and the removal of the fear of death. The second part is a short motet for a two-part choir with bell-like repeated phrases and a strong influence of Gabrieli. The final section reflects the Nunc dimittis, and was composed for a five-strong low-voice choir with a distant choir of three high singers (two Seraphim and the Soul in bliss) who were positioned near the sarcophagus at the other end of the church. The varying moods of the piece, and Schütz’s sensitive attention to the underlying text, were beautifully caught by the singers of Vox Luminis, most of whom had exposed solo spots. There was excellent support from organist Kris Verhelst, whose imaginative and sensitive continuo realisations were spot on.

There followed one of the most beautiful Bach moments I know, the opening Sonatina to the Actus Tragicus (the early cantata Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit). Scored for the unusual and, at the time, rather an old-fashioned combination of pairs of recorders and violas da gamba with organ continuo. The two recorders intertwine with each other, often moving around a single note, above a gently pulsating bass line and the sorrowful sound of the two gambas, beautifully played by Joshua Cheatham and Lucile Boulanger. The director of Vox Luminis, Lionel Meunier, stepped out from his usual position as bass singer to play one of the recorder parts, joining Benny Aghassi.

They concluded with Bach’s cantata for Easter Sunday, Christ lag in Todesbanden, another early work. Violone player Benoît Vanden Bemden had some tricky passages to deal with, which he did with subtle virtuosity. Ther ended with an encore, Buxtehude’s lovely Jesu meines Lebens Leben.

Vox Luminis are one of the finest early music groups around. I have reviewed them since the early days of their foundation, and have always praised their pure sound, perfect intonation, outstanding sense of consort, and musical intelligence. On this occasion, there were brief moments from a couple of the singers when their usual standard was not quite reached, something I put down to an over-busy singing Easter. However, just before the encore, Lionel Meunier revealed that two of the singers had dropped out at very short notice – one that morning! Many of the solos were handed on to the other singers. Mezzo Florence Pettet was one of the last-minute stand-ins and, with the excellent countertenor Alexander Chance, was amongst the best singers of the day. I was also impressed with bass Sebastian Myrus and, of course, fellow bass discrete director, Lionel Meunier.