Music Review    

A beautiful blending of voices

Tuesday, December 11, 2001

Kleinhans' Mary Seaton Room

A beautiful blending of voices

By HERMAN TROTTER, News Music Critic

Lionheart is one ensemble that gives the early music movement a good name.

In its Tuesday program, called "Tydings Trew:  Feasts of Christmas in Medieval England," the group gave a demonstration of how six voices can blend and impinge on each other with such centered focus and intensity that the bloom rising from the ensemble, even at mezzo piano levels, can sound full and rich.

The ensemble's pronunciation of the Early English and Latin texts also became a point of listener fascination.  It was almost sculptural, with the sounds of the individual syllables carved in a way that produced perfect sound formation and immaculate enunciation.

As for the program, it consisted of music associated with the major feast days of the Christian year, starting with the Annunciation (March 25), then proceeding to the Nativity (Dec. 25), the feasts of St. Stephen (Dec. 26) St. John the Evangelist (Dec. 27), the Holy In´┐Żnocents (Dec. 28) and St. Thomas of Canterbury (Dec. 29), concluding with the Epiphany (Jan. 6).

Lionheart began singing the hymn "A solis ortus cardine" as a processional, so faintly at first it seemed they might be processing from the parking lot.  En route to the stage they blossomed from unison chant into two-part harmony while singing three verses arrayed across the back of the hall.  The impact of that superb two-part harmony was visceral.  You could feel it as well as hear it.

There were 22 selections in all, some sung by the full six-voice ensemble, others by varied smaller ensembles.  There was some exquisitely beautiful endless melisma on vowels sounds in the motet "Nesciens mater," a wonderful lilt in the phrasing of "Nowel, nowel . . . Owt of your slepe aryse," and some incredibly subtle, intricate, ear-bending counterpoint in the carol "Ave Rex angelorum."

During the hour-and-a-quarter program there were only two selections familiar to most of the audience.  The carol "Lully, lulla...O sisters too" turned out to be the original version of what has come down to us as the familiar "Coventry Carol."  And a welcome touch at the very end was the inclusion as an encore of a 20th century work, Gustav Holst's setting of Christina Rossetti's "In the Bleak Midwinter," whose faithful painting of the sense of bleakness made this work a fine spiritual companion of its medieval partners.

Not everything was of equal interest, but the 13th century anonymous hymn "Sancte dei preciose" is something I'll not soon forget.  The singers were in two groups of three for this three-verse hymn.  At the end of the first verse one voice held onto a soft pedal point on the syllable "O," and after the second verse another vocal pedal point joined the first, continuing as a quiet mesmerizing drone through the entire third verse.  It's a pity more contemporary composers don't have the imagination of this anonymous 13th century visionary.

Lionheart is represented exclusively by Bernstein Artists and records for Koch International.

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