In recent years, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sons has been given something of a renaissance. While Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Christian (and to a certain extent Wilhelm Friedemann) have entered the mainstream repertoire, the same cannot be said for Johann Sebastian’s ancestors. While he may have fathered several celebrated musical figures, it is easy to forget that Johann Sebastian Bach was only one in a long line of musicians and composers. In an attempt to both shed light on his musical influences, but also to perform some long-neglected music, the Belgian Ensemble Vox Luminis presented an all-Bach programme... Johannes, Johann Michael, Johann Christoph, Johann Ludwig and Johann Sebastian Bach, that is.

Vox Luminis © Jozsef Wagner Csapo
Vox Luminis
© Jozsef Wagner Csapo

The programme was presented as a chronological survey of composers in the Bach family, but also of German sacred music throughout the Baroque era, music that also would prove formative for Johann Sebastian Bach. The Bach family was originally from Hungary, but as religious conflicts arose in the mid-16th century, the Lutheran Bachs settled in Wechmar in central Germany. The children of Veit Bach, who was the one who fled Hungary, showed a talent for music, and some, like Veit’s grandson Johannes even turned to composing.

Of Johannes Bach’s music, only two motets and an aria survive, and Vox Luminis performed both the motets. Like so much other German sacred music of this period, it is extremely text-focused, with largely homophonic settings, with emphasis placed on certain words with a drawn-out melisma. This was especially apparent in the first of the two motets, Unser Leben ist ein Schatten, where the word “Schatten” dissolved into thin air with an upwards scale.

Continuing down a generation and to another branch of the Bach family tree entirely, to brothers Johann Michael and Johann Christoph Bach, the first cousins of Johann Sebastian’s father, the music became more polyphonic and often more inventive. While the influence of Schütz was apparent also in Johannes Bach’s music, it was especially clear in the brothers’ music, like in Johann Christan’s Lieber Herre Gott. Johann Michael seemed to have a particular knack for polyphonic writing, especially in the deliciously dense “Amen” in Nun treten wir ins neue Jahr.

Johann Ludwig Bach, Johann Sebastian’s second cousin, to a certain extent left behind the homophonic, text-centred settings of his forebears, instead going for a highly virtuosic, polyphonic style, showcasing the singers’ abilities. His eight-part Das ist meine Freude was almost bewilderingly virtuosic, contrapuntal lines going all over the place. The same, freer compositional approach was also evident in his Das Blut Jesu Christi, but his music seemed to lack the spiritual fervour that so characterised the pieces of his predecessors, not to mention his famous second cousin.

For most of the concert, Vox Luminis stuck to one singer per part, making polyphonic lines clearly apparent. They were, however, rather bottom-heavy, the basses often taking up to much space, at times drowning out the less sonorous sopranos. The use of only male altos also gave rise to occasional some balance issues, the alto part either blending in nicely or sticking out uncomfortably. This was also partly due to a last-minute replacement, but still regrettable.

Having to sing in German seems to have caused the ensemble some issues. Their sound was defined by an admittedly very lovely legato, but it made getting the many consonants of German across difficult. They fared acceptably in the smaller motets, but their German pronunciation was never the crispest. This became grimly apparent in the final motet, Johann Sebastian Bach’s masterful Jesu, meine Freude, a piece bursting with drama, aggression and spiritual fervour. In a piece with so many different sections, so many different moods, Vox Luminis just made it flow nicely, more concerned with beauty of line and sustaining their legato than with giving expression to the music. It was almost impressive how they could make such a thrilling piece so bloodless.

Returning with an encore, Johann Christian Bach’s peaceful Unser Leben währet siebenzig Jahr, Vox Luminis seemed more at home, not having to do more than sing prettily. While much of the music they presented was beautiful in its own right, I could not help but think that some more care and attention would have helped show it in an even better light.

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