Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Stabat Mater review – voluptuous lamentations from Vox Luminis

21 February 2024

Music from the Middle Ages to the Baroque on the subject of ‘the Lamentation of Christ’ from the Belgian vocal and instrumental group.

Vox Luminis

Vox Luminis (Photo: Leslie Artamonow)

It’s Lent, so a programme of ‘sacred’ music for the season is naturally going to head to the gloomy: breast-beating penitence or an anticipation of approaching Passiontide with all its bleak bloodiness. But that’s fine, because, arguably, the portrayal of all this despondency seems to have brought out the best in composers, particularly those of the Renaissance and Baroque eras: all that modal polyphony and all those aching suspensions make for truly interesting and surprising listening.

For their Wigmore concert on Wednesday, Vox Luminis, under their singer-director Lionel Meunier put together a deliciously mournful programme that took as its inspiration the great 13th century hymn Stabat Mater – Mary’s lamentation over the body of her crucified son, the musical equivalent of a Pietà.

Most of the works were from the late Renaissance and Baroque periods, but the concert opened with the anonymous 13th century Lamentation de la Vierge au Croix. Sung by a solo unaccompanied countertenor from the hall’s gallery, the lengthy text, given ‘authentic’ Old-French pronunciation and plenty of dynamic expression, made a haunting start to a concert in which, by clever use of short organ improvisations between items, applause was kept to the end of each half, and the reverential atmosphere was maintained throughout.

Antonio Lotti’s Crucifixus for eight voices was probably the most well-known item on the programme, and, using one voice to a part and a simple organ continuo, the group brought out not only its famous opening ‘build’ with careful attention to blend, dynamic and intensity of tone, but continued the good work on texture and balance across the echo and interplay of parts in the subsequent polyphony.

“…Vox Luminis, under their singer-director Lionel Meunier put together a deliciously mournful programme…”

Vox Luminis

Vox Luminis (Photo: Leslie Artamonow)

Although Monteverdi’s motet Adoramus te Christe – from the composer’s time at St Mark’s Venice – is a largely homophonic work, this gives opportunity for some heavy leaning on the scrunchy suspensions – an opportunity that Vox Luminis took full advantage of (the dynamic bloom and decay on ‘miserere’ was particularly tasty). Also on display was an admirable attention to the way the text is layered – a precise delivery of the textural differences in the ‘conversation’ between the three upper and the three lower parts.

Domenico Mazzocchi worked in Rome in the 1620s, and his Piangete occhi, piangete is an excellent example of an early-Baroque ‘spiritual madrigal’ – not technically a fully sacred piece, but a mix of the holy and the secular. Two sopranos and the group’s opulent continuo section (organ, harp, violone and theorbo) brought some enjoyable contrasts to this work, alternating singers and accompaniment to point up different textures (some enjoyable growling from the violone, and low strings of harp and theorbo), and once again a commanding delivery of the intensity of emotion prevailed through the leans on those pinging suspensions and, on ‘langue’, some cheeky pitch bending.

Two works by the little-known Alessandro Della Ciaia bookended the interval. Firstly his Lamentio Virginis in deposition Filii de cruce, in which a solo soprano representing Mary sings solo sections that alternate with choral interjections of text from Stabat Mater by an angel (two four-voice choirs). Zsuzsi Tóth took the solo role, and her slightly husky voice suited Mary’s tearful outpourings well. Again, the group’s ability to colour the narrative of relatively simple musical material (notwithstanding the wonderfully twisty writing on ‘plange caelum’), through adroit use of timbre, volume and expression (the dramatic ‘twang’ from Simon Linné’s theorbo on ‘ingrati’, for example) was impressive. The motet for tenor and continuo Ecce venio ad te was given an equally fervent rendering, its lengthy melismatic passages bringing to mind Monteverdi’s earlier writing.

Domenico Scarlatti is mostly known for his keyboard works, but his 10-part Stabat Mater of 1715 – while he was Maestro di Cappella at St. Peter’s, Rome – is a glorious example of his rare choral writing. It is sectional, each of its ‘movements’ musically painting the text, and careful consideration needs to be given to the subtle – and sometimes ostentatious – shifts of emotional force. This, though, is familiar territory for Vox Luminis, and the result was a first-rate performance. Perhaps the opening bars were a little underpowered, but after that, the ensemble settled to an account that was full of light and shade. ‘Pertransivit gladius’ was overflowing with the ardour of Simeon’s prophecy fulfilled; ‘Quis est homo’ was sprightly (with a moving pause before ‘Quis non posset’); the growth in dynamic on ‘Dolentem’ allowed the singers to really chew the suspensions; the angularity of lines in ‘Morientem desolatum’ was offset by a carefully controlled legato; the scrunches of ‘Sancta mater were wafted across with quiet intensity; ‘Inflammatus’ had just the right degree of pokiness to it; and the contrapuntal sections (including the spritely final fugal ‘Fac ut animae’) were conveyed with crisp energy.

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