Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 12 2016
The Belgian vocal ensemble bring their distinctive style to bear on a programme of Tudor sacred music
It needs a certain sort of courage for a Belgian ensemble (whose singers comprise a wide variety of nationalities) to take a programme of 16th & 17th century English music on tour in the UK. But Vox Luminis, artistic director Lionel Meunier, have done just that. We caught their programme Light and Shadow at Cadogan Hall on 11 May 2016 (as part of Choral at Cadogan), the first leg of a tour which takes them to St John's College Cambridge, Brighton and Chipping Camden. Their programme included Latin and English sacred music from the 16th and 17th centuries under the title Light and Shadow: Music at the time of Elizabeth I with Tallis's O nata lux,, Videte miraculum and Hear the voice and prayer, Robert White's Christe, qui lux es et dies, John Sheppard's In manus tuas and In Pace, William Byrd's Ave verum corpus, Thomas Tomkins' When David heard, Robert Ramsay's How are the mighty fall'n, Thomas Weelkes' Death hath deprived me, and Thomas Morley's Funeral Sentences. So we had a programme which started in the light and then moved into the shadows, at first metaphorically and then physically as the lights were first dimmed and then extinguished completely for the Funeral Sentences.
Vox Luminis is led by Lionel Meunier who sings baritone and directs from within the ensemble. They used a flexible group of 15 singers to enable them to sing all the music with two singers per part (in fact some was done one to a part). The performers generally stood in a semi-circle and there was a very real sense of us overhearing a quietly intense performance. There was little in the way of showmanship either physical or vocal, just a firmly intent concentration on the music itself.
The group makes a rich, vibrant sound with individual voices very present. The sound is very particular and distinctive, especially combined with the group's preference for steady tempos and beautifully shaped phrases. The results lacked the sheer surface perfection of some groups, but replace this with a vibrantly numinous quality.
And the language?
The English items were sung in a way which was creditable and communicative. Most importantly, all the singers sang the words as if they really meant something. It wasn't about beauty, or otherwise, of diction but about conveying the essential meaning.
We started with Tallis. O nata lux was slow and sustained with a sense of five vibrant voices, whilst Videte miraculum with 14 singers was quite gentle in feel (climax notwithstanding) with individual voices coming out of the ebb and flow. Two responds followed, Robert White's Christe, qui lux es et dies and John Sheppard's In manus tuas. In each the chant was sung by a soloist separate from the ensemble (12 singers in the White, 10 in the Sheppard). Sung at a steady tempo with some beautiful details, in both responds the sound was strong but with a grounded sense of inwardness.
William Byrd's Ave verum corpus followed and it was fascinating to hear a performance from singers who had not been singing it since childhood. Here the vibrant strength of sound was complemented by a real feel for the words. The first half concluded with a move from light to dark with Thomas Tomkins' When David heard. Beautifully rendered, the 12 singers restraint made the work (a lament for the early death of Prince Henry, King James I's heir) all the more poignant.
After the interval we heard Robert Ramsay's How are the mighty fall'n; Ramsay also produced a setting of When David heard and How are the mighty fall'n is in a similar vein. Serious and gravely beautiful, the 12 singers brought a sense of great detail to the music before reaching a powerful climax.
Thomas Weelkes Death hath deprived me is almost a sacred madrigal, written on the death of Thomas Morley. And here the 12 singers really gave the words their due weight amidst all the madrigalian musical rhetoric. Tallis' Hear the voice and prayer may be one of the earliest Tudor English anthems. Sung TTBB by nine men in a circle, there was a sober beauty to the performance with expressive words.
John Sheppard's In pace, written for Compline at Magdalen College, was sung with the lights low, thus evoking the candlelit atmosphere of the end of day service in the college chapel. there was a lovely calmness to the performance, with its combination of beautiful phrasing and expressive text. Finally the lights were fully extinguished, leaving just the eight singers illuminated by their LED music lights to perform Thomas Morley's Funeral Sentences. The Book of Common Prayer texts have become an essential part of the English language and the grave beauty of Thomas Morley's setting was such that they were not only used at Queen Elizabeth I's funeral but had a huge influence on future settings. Vox Luminis' performance was all about the sober beauty of the words, with the finely crafted musical performance really complementing the expressive text.
Vox Luminis' style is not necessarily for everyone; when I talked to Lionel Meunier afterwards he said that he was happy for people to either love them or hate them but he didn't want people to be indifferent. The audience at Cadogan Hall were certainly not indifferent and we were treated to an encore or rather two encores in one. Tallis' If ye love me was sung first by men's voices at the original pitch (a fourth lower than we are generally used to today), and then by the whole choir at the modern high pitch.
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- The delight of having both: Mendelssohn & Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream at Middle Temple Hall - theatre review
- Much to admire: ENO season launch - new article
- Finely sung: Folk song of the British Isles from the Armonico Consort - CD review
- Engaging enchantment: Ensemble Pygmalion's Rheinmädchen - CD review
- Highly engaging: The Sixteen in Monteverdi's 1650 collection - CD review
- Remarkable rediscovery: Classical Opera in Jommelli's Il Vologeso - Opera review