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GRAMOPHONE (05/2023)
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Reviewer :
David Vickers

Lionel Meunier and Ricercar producer Jérôme Lejeune were working together on Vox Luminis’s critically acclaimed recording of Schütz’s Musicalische Exequien (A/11; deservedly Gramophone’s Recording of the Year in 2012) when they observed enthusiastically that some of its elegiac verses correlate to texts in Brahms’s A German Requiem (1867). Moreover, the 19th-century composer certainly drew some of his inspiration from 17th-century Lutheran church music. For more than 10 years Meunier and Lejeune have gradually researched and devised an ingenious reversal of perspectives. They take the piecemeal scriptures from the Bible and the Apocrypha that Brahms abridged for use throughout his seven movements as the impetus for their own parallel programme of early German Baroque settings of the same (or similar) words for Vox Luminis’s ‘Ein deutsches Barockrequiem’.

The 19th-century choral warhorse is a starting point for ideas rather than a strictly binding template. Several of the chosen works set longer passages of Biblical texts than Brahms’s selective adaptations, and it was not possible to find suitable early


Vox Luminis bring 17th-century Lutheran church music vividly to life musical settings of every verse. There are also a few departures from the Brahmsian model, most notably that Vox Luminis begin and end proceedings with contemplations on death and divine consolation using texts that do not feature in Ein deutsches Requiem, but which contain appropriately meditative music that mingles temporal sorrow and divine consolation. Andreas Scharmann’s Gedenke, Herr, wie es uns gehet (1663) is an exquisite setting of Lamentations 5:15-16 for solo voices, ripieno choir and five-part strings, and Andreas Hammerschmidt’s Ich hebe meine Augen auf zu den Bergen (1646) provides a solemnly gorgeous conversation between the mellifluous solo tenor Jacob Lawrence and responses from the 10-strong choir doubled by strings.

Otherwise, Vox Luminis perform motets and psalms on texts that follow the scheme of Brahms’s texts fairly closely. A brief introductory sinfonia for five-part strings by Thomas Selle leads directly into Johann Hermann Schein’s pensive setting of Selig sind die da geistlich arm sind (1626), a complete treatment of Christ’s Beatitudes (Brahms used only the second line, ‘Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted’); solo voices sing with immaculately contoured shading and unforced sweetness. Christian Geist’s Die mit Tränen säen (1673) is a substantial 11-minute setting of Psalm 126 mingled with a verse from the Wisdom of Solomon and additional poetry. Its long text is substantially different from the shortened lines preferred by Brahms: four soloists contribute short arias and ensembles in tandem with three violas da gamba and organ (there is a poignant solo by tenor Raphael Höhn), all performing with honeyed melancholy, and the rest of the assembled vocal group lend expressive weight in tutti passages.


No suitable Baroque settings of the texts in Brahms’s second movement could be found until the Leipzig Thomaskantor Tobias Michael’s madrigalian five-voice motet Die Erlöseten des Herren (1634). Sung by 10 voices supported by organ and violone, the final line observing that ‘sorrow and sighing shall flee away’ is performed with astonishing deftness. The three sections of Brahms’s third movement are represented almost word for word in the Darmstadt Kapellmeister Wolfgang Carl Briegel’s polyphonic setting of verses from the psalm Ach, Herr, lehre doch mich (1671), Hammerschmidt’s six-part Ach wie gar nichts sind alle Menschen (1646) and the Nuremberg cantor Heinrich Schwemmer’s Die Gerechten Seelen sind in Gottes Hand (1669); this features softly blissful playing by five-part strings in instrumental passages and also in dialogue with voices. Schein’s four-part choral setting of three verses in Psalm 84 (Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen, 1627) is an antecedent of Brahms’s paraphrase of slightly different verses in his fourth movement. However, no suitable compositions could be found to correspond to Brahms’s fifth movement, so instead Vox Luminis perform Schein’s funeral motet Ich will schweigen (1617) – the plaintive cries at its climax sung by all 12 voices with an extraordinary compound of polished precision and fulsome texture.


Hammerschmidt’s elaborate doublechoir motet Der Tod ist verschlungen evokes the Resurrection and Day of Judgement, and culminates in the same two lines from 1 Corinthians that Brahms used to end his sixth movement; the building harmonic richness, modal piquancy and audibly separated exchanges between the two choirs for the recurring exclamations ‘Victoria, Alleluia’ resemble a gutsy take on Gabrieli – and it is thrilling to hear Vox Luminis pushing beyond their usual comfort zone of sublimity and really going for it. Brahms’s finale is a setting of Revelations 14:13 (‘Selig sind die Toten’), for which Vox Luminis perform a 13-minute sacred concerto by the Hamburg doctor and singer Johann Philipp Förtsch (c1700). This essentially tripartite cantata sounds halfway between late Buxtehude and early Bach, and features several short arias sung mesmerisingly by soprano Viola Blache, countertenor Alexander Chance and bass Sebastian Myrus; the fluidity of interplay between five solo voices, ripieno choir and string ensemble (violins, viols and violone) has almost unworldly refinement. Throughout this meticulously plotted alternative perspective on mostly familiar texts, Vox Luminis’s squad of up to 15 voices sing with the utmost sincerity of expression. Even so, special praise must be given to the manifold responsiveness of the string players and Bart Jacobs’s intelligent organ continuo realisations.



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