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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Magnificat in D major, BWV 243 (1723/32-35) [28.54]
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Dixit Dominus, HWV 232 (1707) [32.20]
Vox Luminis/Lionel Meunier
rec. 2017, Begijnhofkerk, Sint-Truiden, Belgium (Dixit Dominus); De Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam (Magnificat)
Sung Latin texts with translations in French and English provided
ALPHA 370 [61.22]

Alpha Classics has released a most attractive album containing a pair of magnificent sacred choral works Handel’s Dixit Dominus and J.S. Bach’s Magnificat performed by early music vocal ensemble Vox Luminis, directed by its founder Lionel Meunier who also sings bass.

Both born in 1685 with only a month separating them, Handel and J.S. Bach were born a mere 80 miles apart with Handel in Saxony and Bach in Thuringia. Together they employed Italian and French styles that were the traditional language of the Baroque. From their prolific output of works Handel was particularly attracted to the theatre stage writing many Operas and Oratorios whilst Bach concentrated mainly on sacred choral music namely Cantatas, Motets, Masses, Magnificats, Passions and Oratorios.

For these historically-informed performances Meunier has studied the original manuscripts and states that both works are scored for five voices with the same line-up of singers, a pair of sopranos, tenor, alto and bass. Looking at the scores with fresh eyes Meunier has “decided to record the Dixit Dominus at the Roman pitch of the time, 392 kHz - a whole tone lower than the modern orchestra ‘A’.” Meunier who handpicks his instrumental players, here uses 21 (strings, woodwind, trumpets, timpani and organ) for the Magnificat and 14 (strings and organ) for the Dixit Dominus. Meunier informs me that his consort of players is using authentic instruments or period copies with the strings using gut and period bows, woodwind of the period and baroque trumpets right down to the timpani. These period informed performances on authentic instruments that are regularly encountered these days certainly provide a contrast to the traditional, generally heavier, less flexible approach to these works I first heard with 1960s recordings.

The opening work is J.S. Bach’s Magnificat, BWV 243 a setting of the Bible canticle also known as the Song of Mary. The Magnificat was written in 1723, after Bach took up his position of Thomaskantor at Leipzig and is his first major sacred composition written to a Latin text. Originally written in E flat major, a decade or so later Bach, as part of a major revision, transcribed the score in D major which is the version Meunier directs here with five vocal parts (SSATB). My highlights include the girl-like innocence given to the aria ‘Et exultavit spiritus meus’ by soprano Stefanie True accompanied by strings. The lovely oboe and organ accompaniment in the soprano aria ‘Quia respexit humilitatem’ adds to the appeal of Zsuzsi Tóth’s exquisitely smooth and flexible voice. Also striking is the chorus in ‘Omnes generationes’ with glorious polyphonic interplay of the vocal lines. Accompanied by organ, bass Sebastien Myrus is smooth and reverential in ‘Quia fecit mihi magna’. The duet Et Misericordia sung by countertenor Jan Kullmann in the alto role, with and tenor Philippe Froeliger, sounds tender and compassionate with the voices blending together agreeably. The ‘Fecit potentiam’ for chorus is impressively rendered with very effective use of trumpets and timpani. In tender, pious voice, countertenor Daniel Elgersma attractively communicates the contralto aria ‘Esurientes implevit bonis’, augmented by flutes. In the trio for three high voices ‘Suscepit Israel’ there is lovely, convincing singing from sopranos Caroline Weynants and Zsuzsi Tóth and countertenor Daniel Elgersma in the alto part. What is remarkable in the final chorus ‘Gloria patri’ is the instrumental sound, especially with the trumpets proudly leading the way and the bursts of vocal energy in the exclamations of ‘Gloria’. Meunier’s choice of speeds particularly in the ‘Et exsultavit, Omnes generationes’ and ‘Sicut locutus’ have come in for criticism in some quarters but I have no such reservations and consider that they work well.

Handel’s psalm setting Dixit Dominus, HWV 232 uses the Latin text of Psalm 110 (Vulgate 109) and opens with the words “Dixit Dominus Domino meo” (The Lord Said unto my Lord). The 22-year-old Handel was living in Italy when he completed the score in 1707 and it was his first large-scale sacred choral work. It is thought that the work was first performed in July of the same year at the Church of Santa Maria di Montesanto in Rome, with the patronage of the influential noble Colonna family. In the aria ‘Virgam virtutis tuae’ Daniel Elgersma demonstrates his attractive countertenor, fluid and expressing unaffected piety. Soprano Caroline Weynants sings the aria ‘Tecum principatus in die virtutis’ very beguilingly with a smooth tone. The chorus makes a strong impression with ‘Tu es sacerdos in aeternum’ and ‘Dominus a dextris tuis’ revealing a glorious interplay of contrasting voices. My highpoint of the entire album is ‘De torrente in via bibet’, a duet with chorus. Sopranos Zsuzsi Tóth and Caroline Weynants are in sublime form, giving a performance that is both affecting and reverential with the chorus providing admirable support. Also admirable, and wholly captivating, is the exultant final chorus ‘Gloria Patri et Filio’, with its prominent organ part.

In both the Bach and Handel works the players and singers of Vox Luminis respond splendidly to director Meunier’s sensitive feeling for tempo, tone and overall style, in performances that provide significant satisfaction. Vox Luminis record both works in churches, the Handel at Begijnhofkerk, Sint-Truiden, Belgium and the Bach at De Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam with the sound engineers excelling in clarity and balance. Beautifully produced, the booklet contains a splendid essay by Peter Wollny, musicologist and Bach specialist. The label is to be applauded for providing sung Latin texts with translations in French and English.

Lionel Meunier directs quite glorious singing and playing from Vox Luminis in Handel and J.S. Bach sacred scores that could hardly sound better.

Michael Cookson



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