Sunday, June 9, 2013

"Vox Luminis" performs Italian Baroque music at the 2013 Israel Festival

The Belgian vocal ensemble “Vox Luminis” was formed in 2004; the chamber group specializes in the performance of music from the 16th to 18th centuries, most of its members having met at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague.  Founded and directed by bass Lionel Meunier, the chamber vocal ensemble’s continuo section consists of Ricardo Rodriguez Miranda-viola da gamba, Masato Suzuki-organ and Jan Cizmar-theorbo. Vox Luminis performs throughout Europe and its recordings on the Ricercar label have won awards and much acclaim. The group’s performance of “Barocco Italiano” in the 2013 Israel Festival took place on June 8th in the Mary Nathanial Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA. It was Vox Luminis’ first Israeli Performance; indeed, it was its first performance outside of Europe.

The program opened with Domenico Scarlatti’s (1685-1727) “Te Deum”, composed in Lisbon where the composer was employed at the royal court as maestro di cappella in the  1720s, was probably first performed at the marriage service in 1729 that united the royal houses of Portugal and Spain. Although popularly known for his brilliant, original and witty harpsichord sonatas, Domenico Scarlatti clearly benefitted from the influences of the generation that followed Monteverdi through his father Alessandro. Scored for two four-part choirs with basso continuo, it makes a combination of the old style and the concertato style.  The composer uses the choirs antiphonally. Using the verbal text (and the composer’s markings) as guidelines to the elasticity of the work, the “Vox Luminis” artists gave a vivid, dynamic reading of it, from the joyful Sanctus movement to the delicate and languishing “The Father: of an infinite Majesty”, to the final words “Let me never be confounded” repeated at a slow tempo, then stopping dead on “non” to create a spine-chilling effect.

Following a transition played by organist Masato Suzuki, we heard Antonio Lotti’s (1667-1740) 8-part “Crucifixus”, a work on which Lotti’s fame mostly rests and which uses the harmonic language of the early 18th century together with 16th century prima prattica contrapuntalism. In this intense and angular work, the “Vox Luminis” singers created a growing sense of anguish as they leaned into its startling accumulation of pungent dissonances, the tension then subsiding and moving into a more peaceful and  resigned mode in “et sepultus est” (and was buried). The performance juxtaposed the ensemble’s masterful shaping, clarity of sound and intonation with its close association with the text.

Giacomo Carissimi’s (1605-1674) “Jephte” would have been one of the Old Testament oratorios performed during Lent at the Collegico Germanico in Rome (a Jesuit seminary training German-speaking priests) where Carissimi was maestro di cappella. Full of colorful depictions of battle, joy and sorrow, it focuses on Jephte’s war with the Ammonites and his pledge to God in exchange for victory – that Jephte sacrifice the first person to meet him on his return. This person ends up being his (nameless) daughter. Her fate is sealed. She asks for two months to mourn her fate in the mountains, where she implores all nature to lament that she will die a virgin, childless. With the oratorio moving forward swiftly and with a sense of urgency in small, effective and dramatic sections, we heard many of the “Vox Luminis” singers in solos, duets and trios. An interesting effect denoting distance was achieved by having some singers placed at the back of the stage:
‘Then Jephthah’s daughter went away to the mountains, and bewailed her virginity with her companions…’
Hungarian-born soprano Zsuzsi Tóth’s portrayal of the daughter changed with the plot, from her naïve and joyous, gently ornamented opening aria “Strike the timbrels and sound the cymbals!” to when her mood became pained, dejected, mournful and bitter: ‘Then tremble, you rocks, be astounded, you hills, vales and caves, resonate with horrible sound!’ Her final aria, sung sotto voce, displayed fine vocal control. Tenor Robert Buckland was energetic and highly convincing in portraying Jephte and the drama of his predicament. He totally immersed himself in the role, its pathos and its personal predicament. Choruses were vivid, bringing out both the narrative course and emotional reflection on different stages of the story. A chorus of six singers concluded the work with a superbly crafted performance of the final lament, spiraling into heart-rending vehemence, ending in the pianissimo abyss of despair:
‘Weep, you children of Israel,
Weep, all you virgins,
And for Jephthah’s only daughter,
Lament with songs of anguish.’

Domenico Scarlatti’s “Stabat Mater”, though written for ten voices and basso continuo,  doesn’t fall into the conventional late Renaissance format of two choirs; rather, all singers perform individual parts. French-born recorder player and bass Lionel Meunier actually established the “Vox Luminis” ensemble in order to perform this very piece; the outstanding performance we heard justified his decision! The singers bring to light how Scarlatti, through his use of tritones, other dissonances and violation of voice-leading, mirrors the deep emotional anguish experienced by the onlooker on viewing Christ on the cross. The "Vox Luminis" singers open with a seamless performance of the opening verse, the piece’s rich counterpoint crowned with pure soprano singing on the top. And so, throughout the work, the clean, powerful and unspoiled voices of these young singers weave the tragic tapestry of the text in vocal lines that are so individually shaped yet so blended that one is confronted with a multi-dimensional canvas that is overwhelmingly rich. Indeed, we were able to hear many wonderful voices, too many to mention here; one of the most commendable was Hungarian-born countertenor Barnabás Hegyi, with his combination of mellow timbre and intensiveness. And there was much attention by all to the verbal text, as shown in tempo changes, in sudden phrase endings, in moments of non-legato singing, in intimate utterances then well contrasted by compelling, highly colored soundscapes. In the final verse, with consonants used for punctuation, time stands still:
‘While my body here decays,
May my soul Thy goodness praise,
Safe in Paradise with Thee…’ 
Performing with little to no doubling of voices, “Vox Luminis” displays the dynamic beauty, freshness, vitality and spontaneity Baroque music reveals in such a setting!   Supported by fine instrumentalists, “Vox Luminis” sings without a conductor: eye contact is an all-important tool for this ensemble. Equipped with fine diction and superior musicianship, Meunier and his fellow musicians delve deeply into the meaning of polyphony – its teamwork and its individualism - resulting in performance that is exciting, profound and memorable.  


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