Friday 23 February 2024

Vivid intensity and profound expressivity: Vox Luminis explores the world of the 17th century Italian Stabat Mater at Wigmore Hall

Domenico Scarlatti painted in 1738 by Domingo Antonio Velasco
Domenico Scarlatti painted in 1738 by Domingo Antonio Velasco

Stabat Mater: Lotti, Monteverdi, Domenico Mazzocchi, Alessandro Della Ciaia, Domenico Scarlatti; Vox Luminis; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed 21 February 2024

An imaginative programme that moved from an anonymous 13th century solo lai to the ten voices of Scarlatti's Stabat Mater, each work rendered with vivid intensity and profound expressivity

The vocal ensemble Vox Luminis returned to Wigmore Hall on Wednesday 21 February 2024 with Stabat Mater, a programme centred on Domenico Scarlatti's glorious ten-part Stabat Mater but which also took in an anonymous 13th century lai, Lamentation de la Vierge au Croix, Antonio Lotti's Crucifixus a8, Monteverdi's Adoramus te Christe and music by two lesser-known 17th century figures, Domenico Mazzocchi and Alessandro Della Ciaia, all focusing on the crucifixion and the lamentation of the Virgin at the foot of the cross.

Vox Luminis fielded an ensemble of eleven singers, directed from within by artistic director and bass Lionel Meunier, plus theorbo (Simon Linné), harp (Sarah Ridy), violone (James Munro) and organ (Anthony Romaniuk), though until the encore (further Monteverdi) we never heard all the singers on stage at once and the programme moved between a single voice right through to the ten voices, always one per part.

We began with the anonymous lai, sung from the balcony by one of the sopranos. Unaccompanied and intensely personal, this was a very affecting performance with beautifully plangent tone and a striking use of silence. This was followed by Lotti's well-known eight-part Crucifixus. This, in fact, comes from a larger-scale work, a complete Credo and Ben Palmer's 2016 recording with the Syred Consort and Orchestra of St Paul's on Delphian demonstrated that there is much to be said for considering Lotti's complete work [see my review], but the Crucifixus remains a striking and very forward-looking fragment, here sung with great intensity by the vocal ensemble, each voice individually expressive and on the edge.. 

What is distinctive about the Vox Luminis sound is how they focus on individual intensity rather than blend, a collective expressiveness comes from the sound of these distinct, plangent voices, each singular yet very present, a striking sound world that is quite distinct from many comparable British ensembles. Monteverdi's Adoramus te Christe came next, written for six voices in 1620 during his time at St Mark's in Venice. This was slow and intense with the six singers making a very full sound.

Domenico Mazzochi (1592-1665) was a Roman composer, coming from the generation after Monteverdi. His Piangete occhi, piangete is a sacred madrigal, in Italian, for two sopranos and continuo that comes from a 1640 publication, Musiche sacre e morali. The text, which in the printed copy of 1640 has the superscription Douemo piangere la Passione di N.S. (We must mourn the passion of Our Lord), is a lament for the passion of Christ. All intense interweaving vocal lines, the work featured plenty of dissonance and false relations, all to a highly expressive purpose as Mazzochi used the secular madrigal form to explore his subject with great freedom. This was a striking discovery, fabulously performed by the two soprano and continuo.

However, the highlight of the first half was the Lamentatio Virginis in depositione Filii de cruce by Alessandro Della Ciaia. Published in 1666 from a collection of Della Ciaia's sacred compositions, the work is in an unusual format, first a short duet (alto and tenor) narrating the deposition of Christ's body, followed by a lament by the Virgin (solo soprano) with an eight-part chorus of Angels. 

Alessandro Della Ciaia (c1605-1670) was a Sienese nobleman, which means that most modern sources of information about him announce that he was an amateur, which has a very different meaning in the 21st century to the 17th. He published three volumes of his compositions, including a collection of madrigals, a collection of lamenti for voice and continuo, and in 1666, the Sacri modulatus, which contains the Lamentatio Virginis. Evidently his texts often came through his contact with the literary academies in Siena, whilst much of his music was written for Sienese nuns. The anonymous text of the Lamentatio Virginis is in Latin though the mixed voice chorus writing hardly suggests nuns.

It was a remarkable piece, with an intense, focused yet highly emotional soprano solo ( Zsuzsi Tóth, I understand) as the Virgin, the music chromatic and her voice highly plangent, set off by the more homophonic ensemble contributions. 

After the interval, we had a last-minute addition to the programme. Lionel Meunier explained that audiences were intrigued to hear more by Alessandro Della Ciaia and the recent publication of an edition of his solo lamenti meant that they could include one. For solo tenor and continuo, it was highly chromatic and very free, with some highly virtuoso passages and the whole exploring extremes of emotion. The tenor (Raffaele Giordani, I think) gave a terrific performance making the bravura sections particularly expressive.

We ended with Domenico Scarlatti's Stabat Mater, written around 1715 before he departed Italy for the Iberian peninsular. It is a striking and stylistically confident work, using ten voices (divided into two unequal choirs, one - four sopranos and bass, two - two altos, two tenors and bass) and throughout he uses the voices freely, sometimes writing polyphony but sometimes allowing individual lines to have expressive freedom. The work divides into the verses of the Stabat Mater, but Scarlatti moves with freely between solo voice, ensemble and tutti so the work runs as a continuous whole rather than dividing into arias and chorus.

Each verse was strongly characterised from the tenderness of 'Sancta mater' to the vividly vigorous 'Inflamatus'. Though larger in scale, the work preserved the feeling of intimate intensity of the music in the first half, full of vibrant individual performances, each line having a strong presence. However, I would have liked more soprano in the mix during the ensemble passages, this seemed quite a tenor-led sound. 

A capacity audience was very vocal in its appreciation at the end and we were treated to an encore, Monteverdi's five-part Christe, adoramus te.

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