CAMBRIDGE - Dietrich Buxtehude suffered the posthumous misfortune of having a genius for a fan: Widely famous in his lifetime, he was subsequently known mostly for being admired by the young J.S. Bach. But Saturday's Boston Early Music Festival concert by the paired Montreal-based ensembles Les Voix Humaines and Les Voix Baroques demonstrated the powerful qualities particular to Buxtehude's music.
At times, Buxtehude seems a Francis Ford Coppola to Bach's Spielberg: more flamboyantly operatic, more attuned to moment-by-moment emotion than architectonics. The cantata "Nimm von uns, Herr du treuer Gott" surpasses Bach's exercises in that genre in impulsiveness and stylization - the stalking violins (Scott Metcalfe and Chloe Meyers) behind the opening plea for mercy; the precipitation of key words out of the manifold texture into anthemic pronouncements.
Throughout, the performance emphasized individual expression over a homogenized sound, giving contrapuntal lines a vibrant, multi-dimensional flow. Conducting from the organ, Christopher Jackson kept the musicians in collective empathetic contact; kaleidoscopic shifts from viols (Margaret Little and Susie Napper, the core of Les Voix Humaines, with Mélisande Corriveau and, briefly, Elin Söderström) to violone (Pierre Cartier) to theorbo (Lucas Harris) felt intrinsic and spontaneous.
In the two-movement voice-and-organ Missa Brevis, Buxtehude adopts imitative Renaissance textures, albeit with chains of sweet Italianate thirds between the two sopranos and a thoroughly up-to-date chromatic "Amen." The singers - Suzie LeBlanc, Catherine Webster, Matthew White (Les Voix Baroques' director), Colin Balzer, and Nathaniel Watson - also made a virtue out of their varying timbres. White's warm alto and Blazer's focused, fluent tenor mediated between the sopranos' straight tones (LeBlanc's sine-wave purity, Webster's organ-pipe flute) and Watson's robust, flexible baritone.
After intermission came a masterpiece, "Membra Jesu Nostri," a cycle of seven cantatas, each focused on part of the crucified Christ's body: feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, face. Emotional directness gives it an intimate aura - uncluttered choral textures communicate the texts (devotional poetry framed by biblical quotations) with rich clarity, while solo arias, their floridity tempered by measured phrasing, crystallize each passing mood. Even the predictable seems new - Buxtehude describes the wounds in Christ's hands with expected expressionist dissonance, but the way stacks of keening suspensions melt into a gentle cadence is a gorgeous surprise. The final "Amen" once again brings the extroverted public Buxtehude back to the stage, but to complement, rather than cancel, the personal statement of faith: The group encored it to punctuate the evening.