Thursday 13 February 2014

Vox Luminis at Choral at Cadogan

Vox Luminis
Stabat Mater: Vox Luminis: Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 12 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Plangently expressive singing from the Belgian ensemble in programme devoted to the Virgin at the foot of the corss

For their concert in the Choral at Cadogan series at London's Cadogan Hall last night (12 February 2014), the Belgian ensemble Vox Luminis brought a programme of music based around the Virgin Mary and the Stabat Mater. Centred on Domenico Scarlatti's Stabat Mater, their sequence of music began with an anonymous 13th century French lais, and continued through Antonio Lotti's Crucifixus, Claudio Monteverdi's Adoramus te Christe, Domenico Scarlatti's Salve Regina and the UK premiered of Alessandro della Ciaia's Lamentatio Virginis in dispositione Filii de cruce a 9.

Lionel Meunier
Lionel Meunier
Vox Luminis was founded by their director Lionel Meunier in 2004 and the first work which the group sang was the Scarlatti Stabat Mater. Consisting of ten singers (four sopranos, two counter-tenors, two tenors and two basses), they sing conductor-less with Meunier singing bass in the ensemble.

The group's singers share a commonality of style and vocal technique, will all producing a very direct, straight sound aiming for expressive flexibility with very little vibrato. The result has a very expressively plangent quality, with something of an edge to the sound and a willingness to, at times, produce very vibrant tone. This gave the ensemble a very distinctive quality whatever era the music they were singing. This was very much an ensemble of vibrant voices, rather than a group singing with pure choral tone. The very straightness of their vocal timbre means that there is little room for manoeuvre when it comes to pitch, and their performance at the Cadogan Hall was notable for the accuracy of the placing of notes and for the flexibility of ensemble which working without a conductor brought. Throughout the performance I was aware of the constant and lively visual interaction between performers.

The evening started with an anonymous 13th century French lais, Lamentation de la Vierge au pied de la Croix sung unaccompanied by a solo soprano from the stage gallery (none of the solos were credited in the programme). This piece brought out the lovely plangent quality of the soloist's voice and her flexible performance, sung in old French, was austerely expressive.

This led straight into the eight-part Crucifixus by Antonio Lotti (c.1667 - 1740), performed by eight voices with organ continuo. Though familiar as a choral piece, this work benefits from the poise and accuracy which eight individual voices can bring, especially in the haunting opening suspensions.

Adoramus te Christe by Claudio Monteverdi (1567 - 1643) was in complete contrast, being in Monteverdi's familiar intense homophonic style albeit with lovely suspensions. Vox Luminis performed it with just six performers with the addition of continuo from harp and organ.

Domenico Scarlatti's (1685 - 1757) Salve Regina is written for soprano and alto soloists plus continuo and it probably dates from the composer's later Neapolitan period. Two soloists from the ensemble were joined by the full continuo group, Masato Suzuki (organ), Ricardo Rodriguez Miranda (viola da gamba), Jurgen de Bruyn (theorbo) and Sarah Ridy (harp). Scarlatti gives the two soloists lovely interlocking vocal lines, and the full, expressive way that the two members of Vox Luminis sang gave full weight to these. The slower sections were poised and fluently expressive, with some lovely neat passage-work in the faster sections. Perhaps the music asks for a showier, more bravura performance but their is no doubting the performers ability or commitment to the music.

Alessandro della Ciaia (c1605 - c1670) is not a well known name; an Italian nobleman who also wrote music, he published three song-books. His Lamentatio Virginis in dispositione Filii de Cruce uses a paraphrase of the Stabat Mater as a text sung by the Virgin (solo soprano) interacting with a chorus of angels (eight voices), which culminates in a highly moving final nine-part chorus, all accompanied by the continuo group. The work comes from Sacri Modulatus published in 1665 and this performance was the work's UK premiere. In style it is not dissimilar to Carissimi's oratorios, starting with a short passage for the narrator (actually two voices), it develops into a long solo for the Virgin as she laments at the foot of the cross. This solo soprano part was beautifully flexible recitative, full of lovely detail and superb ornamentation. The chorus of Angels was more homophonic, with some lovely suspensions and passing notes, when all nine voices combined at the end the result was something rather special.

The second half of the concert consisted of just one work, Domenico Scarlatti's Stabat Mater for ten voices and continuo. It was probably written for the Capella Giulia in Rome and though the work is commonly performed nowadays as a choral piece the programme note argued for an ensemble of ten soloists as would have happened if performed in the Sistine Chapel. Here Vox Luminis made this point convincingly as their performance moved fluently between soloistic virtuosity to flexible ensemble. The ten voices performed it split into two choirs, one each side of the continuo group, with four sopranos and a bass in one choir and two altos, two tenors and a bass in the other.

They brought a vibrant shape and responsiveness to the music, with individuals bringing details out then slipping back into the texture. At Quae moerebat all voices were fined down in a magical fashion, whilst in the following verse the fast tempo made the lines cascade over each other in a dramatic and effective manner, before the original slower tempo returned. Scarlatti does not use a schematic tempi in the piece, preferring to be flexible and respond to the text and the performance from Vox Luminis reflected this.

The moments when Scarlatti uses all four sopranos canonically created some lovely hypnotic textures, whilst the suspensions at moments like Sancta Mater, istud agas reminded me of the Lotti we had heard earlier. The group's individual approach paid dividends at Inflammatus et accensus where we got some fast and brilliant, almost operatic, singing contrasting with the darkly dramatic In die iudicii. They finished with a wonderfully full blooded account of the fugal finale. All in all, a very involving and supremely expressive performance. (The group has recorded the Scarlatti, see the ad below).  We were treated to an encore, another piece of Monteverdi this time Christe adoramus te.

The concert was preceded by a short performance in the foyer where the group K'antu Ensemble gave us a lively selection of early music with many folk and world music influences with music coming from Spain and South America. The group uses a mixture of voices and instruments (with many performers doubling) plus percussion to create a lively, but historically informed result. They are performing extensively in the summer and are a group to look out for.

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