Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Newly resurrected 16th century polyphony from the newly formed Chineke! Voices makes a lasting impression

18 June 2022

Little heard Lusitano features at St Martin-in-the-Fields.

Chineke! Voices

Joseph McHardy, Andrew Maginley & some of Chineke! Voices (Photo: Barry Creasy)

The Chineke! Foundation’s motto is ‘Championing change and celebrating diversity in classical music’, and its aim is to provide career opportunities for Black and ethnically diverse classical musicians in the UK and Europe. The Chineke! orchestra is now a regular part of the UK’s classical concert and recording scene, and made its Proms debut in 2017. The latest scion of the Foundation, Chineke! Voices – a nine voice vocal ensemble – was launched this month, via a three venue (Bristol, Oxford, London) tour showcasing the gorgeous polyphonic writing of Vicente Lusitano (c. 1520-c. 1561), Europe’s first identifiable composer of Black descent to have his music published; if the final concert of the tour, at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Saturday was anything to go by, both Chineke! Voices and Lusitano’s music have a lasting future ahead of them.

In all, the group performed nine works by Lusitano – six lengthy two section motets for between five and eight voice parts, a similarly scored secular work (Quid Montes, Musae?) and a charming setting of Salve Regina for three upper voices and lute, all of the works edited by the choir’s director, Joseph McHardy. To give the voices some respite, each half contained a lute piece (Gombert’s Vostre beualte and Josquin’s In te Domine speravi) played by Andrew Maginley. Although the lute pieces were well executed, it’s a pity that Maginley wasn’t seated more to the fore to play them; the lute is a quiet instrument, and his playing it standing at one of the choir positions didn’t make hearing it any easier, even from four rows back.

“…both Chineke! Voices and Lusitano’s music have a lasting future ahead of them”

Of Lusitano’s music, one can only say that here is a composer whose works need to be more widely incorporated into the repertoire of European polyphony. Several of the works, traditional for this mid-Renaissance period, are based around a cantus firmus, and while they don’t contain as many of the opulent free-form writing of later Renaissance composers, they are full of delicious quirks: a few false relations here and there (particularly noticeable in Aspice Domine); some gloriously rich lower voice writing (Emendemus in Melius); and an ingenious way of ending sections with a delay in the cadential phrases from short interplays between the inner voice parts.

The performances, particularly bearing in mind that this is a newly formed group of singers drawn from the UK, Europe and the USA, were generally very good. The group has established a good timbral blend, and they communicate well as an ensemble. The first half of the concert occasionally felt a little constrained in terms of expression; for sure, Renaissance polyphony isn’t Verdi, but one should sense the direction of phrases led by a little attack and dynamic nuance, and one felt that, while the lower parts were attempting this, they were compelled to rein it in by the upper voices – which were exquisite in tone, but somewhat unvarying in dynamic. For the first item (Beati omnes qui timent Dominum) the ensemble was joined by singers from the St John the Divine Kennington Children’s Choir, who provided the cantus firmus against the five part polyphony. This worked generally well, although the contrast between the focused sound of Chineke! Voices and the rather more spread sound of the children’s choir was perhaps a little too marked. The second half, though, saw a much more relaxed and intuitive approach to the style, and the consequent production of some really glittering accounts – in particular, Salve Regina, with its carefully judged balance of three intertwining upper voices, and the magnificent three section, eight voice setting of the Marian motet Inviolata, integra et casta es, which left concertgoers with a lasting impression of a first rate vocal group singing inspiring and beautiful music.

One small plea, though, for next time: please provide texts and translations; some of them (Regina Coeli) are well known, but others less so.

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Newly resurrected 16th century polyphony from the newly formed Chineke! Voices makes a lasting impression