ST JOHN’S SMITH SQUARE EASTER FESTIVAL – VOX LUMINUS

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For obvious reasons, St John’s Smith  Square is an ideal venue for a festival of sacred music for Holy Week. This Easter Festival, which took place between 10 and 17 April, featured a broad mix of repertoire from across the centuries, the concert on 14 April with the vocal ensemble Sansara and Fretwork illustrating the eclectic nature of the festival by including works by the Tudor composer Robert White and Arvo Pärt. Unsurprisingly early music was well represented, with concerts including Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater (Anna Devin and Hugh Cutting), Handel and Vivaldi (his Stabat mater, RV621 with Hilary Cronin and Cutting again, the former a Handel Festival prize winner, the latter a Ferrier award winner). Perhaps the most ambitious event was the candlelit late-night concerts by Sansara of Gesualdo’s tormented Tenebrae Responsories, given in a candlelit liturgical context over three nights. More traditional Easter fare featured in a Bach St John Passion (Polyphony and OAE under Stephen Layton), before the festival was brought to a conclusion by the Belgian-based ensemble Vox Luminus, under the unobtrusive direction of bass Lionel Meunier.

It was this concert that we were able to attend along with an audience that was disappointingly sparse given Vox Luminus’s present eminence among vocal ensembles. I suppose Westminster is perhaps not a place of choice for many potential concert-goers to be on an Easter Sunday afternoon. Sadly, too, the level of Schütz’s box-office appeal in this country is far from commensurate with his greatness as a composer, so that his profoundly affecting Musicalische Exequien was the centrepiece of the concert may also have proved a deterrent. A German requiem, the work was commissioned from Schütz for his own funeral obsequies by a German nobleman. In this performance, it was given within the context of a funeral, including the opening chorale ‘Mit Fried und Freud’ that accompanied the funeral procession into the church, and to conclude the exquisite German setting of the ‘Nunc dimittis’, which employs evocative in lontano effects, here most atmospherically brought off. It was an award-winning recording of the work in 2012 that first brought Vox Luminus to wide notice. With its alternation of tutti ensemble movements and Favoriten passages for one or more soloists, the Musicalische Exequien is ideally suited to the strengths of Vox Luminus, which over the years have cultivated the individuality of the singers, all of whom are required to undertake solo parts, within integrated ensemble singing in which the personality of each singer remains paramount. At St John’s, ensemble was further tested by a visitation to Vox Luminus of the Covid curse, necessitating several late replacements. It barely showed, the rare odd slip being of the kind that can occur at any time. Far more importantly, with the slight caveat that the ensemble’s principal soprano slightly tended to dominate the texture in ripieno passages, this was overall a deeply sensitive and moving performance that so obviously came from the heart.

Much the same can be said of the two Bach cantatas that made up the programme. Both ‘Christ lag in Todes Banden’, BWV4 and the so-called ‘Actus Tragicus’ (‘Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit’), BWV106 are among the earliest cantatas Bach wrote and works that owe more to 17th-century predecessors such as Schütz and Buxtehude than the more modern type of Italianate cantata adopted by Bach in his later Leipzig cantatas. BWV106 is a funeral cantata probably composed during Bach’s brief Mühlhausen period (1707-08) for obsequies the details of which are unknown. Scored for minimal forces – SATB ‘choir’ – here of course rightly single voices per part – with solo interjections and just pairs of recorders (instruments associated with death during this period) and viola da gambas, and continuo. More consolatory than dramatic, the performance achieved a wonderfully intimate and inward-looking perspective on death, particularly touching in the exchange between the bass and the alto soloist’s chorale that immediately precedes the final chorale.

BWV4 could not have been a more appropriate choice to round off the programme, it being a cantata for Easter Sunday, the exact year of composition also not established, though it probably dates from his Weimar period (1708-13). It is cast in the form of a set of chorale variations, the melody retained throughout the seven verses which are varied both melodically and in their scoring and vocal disposition. Meunier here went with a larger-scale reading, employing three voices per part, doubtless so as to include all his performers, which caught the vibrant celebratory nature of the cantata effectively. This richly rewarding concert was rounded off by an encore in the shape of Buxtehude’s cantata, termed ‘aria’ in manuscript sources, ‘Jesu meines Lebens Leben’, BuxWV62, which is set over an ostinato bass. The timeline between Schütz and Bach was thus neatly bridged.

Brian Robins