Eleven singers and two instrumentalists of Vox Luminis, the Belgian group which specializes in vocal music of the 16th to 18th centuries, awakened the reverberant acoustics of Duke University’s iconic Chapel with a feast of polychoral works including the Musikalische Exequien (funeral music, SWV 279-281) by Heinrich Schütz and motets by some of J.S. Bach’s ancestors: Johann (1604-73); Johann Christoph (1642-1703); Johann Michael (1648-94); and Johann Ludwig (1677-1731). The presenter was Duke Performances.

The program notes and texts-with-translations, appropriately scholarly for a university concert, needed more editing. Referring to the Kyrie as Latin (it is the one part of the Ordinary of the Mass that is in Greek), mistranslating “so bist du doch, Gott, allezeit meines Herzens Trost, und mein Teil” as “yet thou art God everlasting, my heart’s comfort and my portion” (more accurately, “therefore are you, God, at all times my heart’s comfort…”) were minor errors.

More significant, because it impeded understanding of the texts, was the convolution of two antiphonal texts in J. Michael’s Halt was du hast. In this motet, an AATB chorus sings freely-composed text and music, alternating with an SSATB chorus singing the chorale Jesu, meine Freude. The program gave us both chorus’ texts as a single poem so that little sense could be made of either text. Fortunately, however, no such slips were made in the performance itself.

The group is more than familiar with Schütz’s funeral music, having won Gramophone’s 2012 “record of the year” award for its recording of this predecessor of Brahms’ German Requiem. The texts were chosen by Henry II, Count of Reuss-Gera, to be used at his funeral; he commissioned Schütz to compose the music, first sung at Henry’s memorial rites in 1636. (While the evening’s program appeared to credit the three sections of this work to Martin Luther, the latter’s musical contribution to the concert was only his German versification of the “Song of Simeon”/Nunc dimittis, the chorale Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin, sung in unison from the Chapel’s side aisles as the concert began.)

The Musikalische Exequien and the Bach family works which followed are spatial music which can only blossom in a warm acoustic such as Duke Chapel’s. While there are some two-dozen recordings of the Schütz work, only a good surround-sound speaker system could begin to emulate a “live” performance, with small groups of singers moving to different locations in the performing space. Having travelled to Italy to study with Giovanni Gabrieli, Schütz was able to import the latter’s polychoral style to Germany and make it a prominent feature of his own music. Accompanied by a rented portative organ tuned in meantone temperament and by a seven-stringed viola da gamba, the singers varied their groupings according to the requirements of each work. Particularly well-done was the third part of the “funeral music,” the “Song of Simeon,” for which director-and-bass singer Lionel Meunier positioned two groups of three singers (two sopranos and a bass) far from the main ensemble which remained in the Chapel’s crossing. In his score, Schütz calls for one or more of these groups to be placed, ad libitum, “in die Ferne,” in the distance. One was in the north transept and one in the side chapel which is the site of Duke family tombs. These three-voice ensembles’ refrain of “Selig sind die Toten…” (“Blessed are the dead…”) is a moving complement to the canticle’s text, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace.” The performance was exquisite.

By the end of the 17th century, the motet had mostly given way to the newer styles of vocal church music such as the cantata and the dramatic accounts of Christ’s passion. The motet survived, however, as funeral music. For this reason, the seven motets by Bach family members which formed the second half of the concert took their texts from Biblical and age-of-confessionalism texts dealing with the end of life and the believer’s response to it. Illustrative of the demands of church music in many German cities of the time, these works required well-trained musicians to sing them, often assuming one singer to a part in music of eight or more parts. Each of the Bach family motets was composed for differing vocal groupings; as each motet ended, the singers moved to their new disposition while organist Jorge López-Escribano played well-crafted “travelling music” in early-Baroque style which served to modulate to the key of the next motet. The Bach family motets were: Sei nun wieder zufrieden, meine Seele, by Johann; Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe; Halt was du hast; and Ich weiss, dass mein Erlőser lebt, by J. Michael; Der Mensch vom Weibe geboren and Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener, by J. Christoph; and Das Blut Jesu Christi, by J. Ludwig.

Each motet was performed beautifully. The group’s diction is impeccable, their individual voices excellent, and their ensemble blend perfect for this music. Undergirding the whole was gambist Ricardo Rodríguez Miranda, positioned so that his instrument could use the Chapel’s center aisle as a sounding-board. His pizzicato playing in Das Blut Jesu Christi was particularly effective as it varied from mere doubling of the vocal bass-line.

Because one of the group’s four tenors had returned home due to illness, they had omitted a small section of the Schütz work for which he was the soloist. As an encore to the concert, Vox Luminis sang a setting of that omitted text, Unser Leben währet siebenzig Jahr (“Our life endures for seventy years”): this time, not by Schütz, but by J. Michael Bach. The audience greeted this encore with the same well-deserved sustained applause with which it had approved the concert itself.

A video of an earlier performance of this work by Vox Luminis may be viewed online here.