United Kingdom Tallis, White, Sheppard, Byrd, Tomkins, Weelkes, Morley: Vox Luminis / Lionel Meunier (artistic director), Chipping Campden International Music Festival, St James’ Church, Chipping Campden, 14.5.2016. (RJ)
Thomas Tallis: O nata lux; Videte miraculu; Hear the voice and prayer
Robert White: Christe, qui lux es et dies
John Sheppard: In manus tuas; In pace
William Byrd: Ave verum corpus
Thomas Tomkins: When David heard
Robert Ramsey: How are the mighty fall’n
Thomas Weelkes: Death hath deprived me
Thomas Morley: Funeral Sentences
As I have mentioned before, this year’s Chipping Campden Festival is full of delightful surprises. The latest one was this concert when English Renaissance music was performed by a Belgian chamber choir under a French conductor. Taking as their theme Light and Shadow the a capella ensemble exploited the wonderful ambience and acoustic of St James’ Church to express the faith and fears of our Tudor and Jacobean forbears.
A quiet but insistent O nata lux was followed by Videte miraculum, the Vespers responsary for Candlemas Eve which builds a polyphonic edifice around an ancient plainchant melody. The theme of light continued in White’s Christe, qui lux est et dies written for Compline before the faithful extinguish their candles and prepare for the night. Plainchant verses alternated with choral settings culminating with a triumphant Amen and Alleluya – simply, but effectively.
Sheppard’s In manus tuas was likewise intended to be sung at the final service of the day and the gentle surrender into God’s keeping, though brief, was full of feeling. The veneration for Christ’s body in William Byrd’s more elaborate Ave verum corpus was enunciated with clarity, the repeated pleas for mercy (miserere mei) resonating around the church. Lionel Meunier led the choir with almost imperceptible gestures and proved to be a fine singer in his own right.
The tragic death of James I’s son Prince Henry at the age of 18 led to a great outpouring of grief in England, and this was reflected so expressively in Tomkins’ When David Heard in which King David mourns the death of his son Absalom. This event was also commemorated in How are the mighty fall’n by Robert Ramsay, a near contemporary of the prince, which reflects David’s anguish on the death of his friend Jonathan. The theme of death continued with Weelke’s lament for his friend Thomas Morley with its weeping falls and chromaticism – all performed effortlessly by Vox Luminis.
Tallis’ Hear the voice and prayer was more conventional in musical structure and sung by the male singers of the choir standing in a circle, while the sentences in John Sheppard’s In pace alternated between plainchant solo and polyphony. The concert ended with Thomas Morley’s setting of the familiar Funeral Sentences from the Book of Common Prayer – a work which was performed after the composer’s death at the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth I. This was a particularly impressive performance with the consolation of I know that my Redeemer liveth contrasting with the austerity of the We brought nothing into this world sequence. The singers brought intense fervour to the plea for deliverance and a deeply felt relief in the final dirge at the assurance of blessings in the after-life.
Death can be a gloomy subject, but far from emphasising the lugubrious Vox Luminis with their refined tone and delicacy of approach conveyed an atmosphere of peace and hope which was uplifting rather than depressing. Their artistry stunned the audience into silence before they eventually broke out into rapturous applause. This 12 year old ensemble from the Continent is clearly attracting an enthusiastic following in Europe with its tours and CDs, and native ensembles who feel they have a monopoly on English Renaissance composers will need to look to their laurels.
The Chipping Campden International Music Festival continues until May 21st with performances by Impogen Cooper, Adrian Brendel, the Nash Ensemble, Isabelle Faust, Paul Lewis and others. (www.campdenmusicfestival.co.uk)