The singers of the pan-European, Belgian-based ensemble present a programme of Renaissance polyphony from Britain.
In the early part of the 20th century, if you were a British composer of church music, it helped if your first name was Herbert; 300 years or so earlier, Thomas was definitely the name to have, and many of these saw representation in Vox Luminis’ cleverly constructed concert of Renaissance works from three of the nations of what was eventually to become the UK. Robert Ramsey was Scottish, and Thomas Tomkins was Welsh, but the rest were all English born: Tallis, Weelkes, Morley (all Thomas); Robert White, John Sheppard, William Byrd.
As might be expected from this period of sectarian tug-of-war, some of the motets were in Latin and others in English (one, Morley’s Nolo mortem peccatoris was even in both languages), and all were arranged in a sequence that took us from light (Tallis’s O nata lux, for example, or White’s Christe qui lux es et dies) into shadow (Sheppard’s In pace, a setting of one of the antiphons from the Catholic burial rite). The first part of the ‘shadow’ section contained four settings of text describing King David’s two great losses, that of his ‘special friend’, Jonathan (Ramsey’s How are the mighty fall’n; Weelkes’ O Jonathan, woe is me and Death hath deprived me) and that of his rebellious son Absalom (Tomkins’ When David heard).
Although the performance space at Kings Place Hall One is formally structured, Vox Luminis used it well, regrouping into arcs and circles on stage for different configurations and numbers of singers, positioning plainchant cantors at the back of the auditorium, and using the gallery for the final three items.
“…all were arranged in a sequence that took us from light… into shadow…”
The singing itself was flawless, and demonstrated to the full the group’s strategy of choosing voices that individually have character, yet meld to form a warm blend that isn’t too clinical. Their director, Lionel Meunier, sings as part of the ensemble, providing, through minimal gesture, tempo and expression.
The music itself was chosen with a clear nod towards variety, even within the restricted style, and the differences were subtly augmented by change in dynamic, speed and vocal attack. White’s Christe qui lux…, for example, is a model of restrained clarity – the seven verses alternate a solo voice with a small ensemble singing quiet, near-homophony. Expanding on this model, Sheppard’s ’responsory motet’ In manus tuas sets plainchant passages against largely homophonic choral sections, but pulls out the full polyphonic stops for the ‘Redemisti’ passage. By contrast, some of the English material allowed the singers to play, by means of more hefty vocal attack, on the stronger emotions: the opening of When David heard, for example, or the marcato passages (‘in the midst of the battle’) in How are the mighty fallen. Indeed, contrast of timbre and dynamic pervaded throughout, such that even Byrd’s somewhat overused Ave verum corpus was given new interest through a precisely controlled exercise in word painting. Dividing Nolo mortem… between two choirs (such that one sang the English verse and the other the Latin ‘motto’) was an astute decision.
Perhaps the most moving part of the concert was at its close. With the auditorium in total darkness, the group processed around the upper gallery singing Morley’s Funeral Sentences, lit only by their candle-like individual music lights. The text – from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer – is as Protestant as fumed oak panelling or preacher’s bands, and is familiar, emotive and steeped in history: “We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out”; “In the midst of life we are in death”. Morley’s setting is equally no-nonsense: direct, with a minimal use of polyphony, and just the occasional harmonic flourish; to hear it given a solemn yet nuanced performance was special indeed.