Music Review    

"Ancestral Voices" at the South Bank Centre

Friday, September 7, 2001
Queen Elizabeth Hall
South Bank Centre, London

By David Vickers, Andante Magazine

The annual Early Music Weekend at London's South Bank was introduced by artistic director Philip Pickett as "a festival for everyone, full of color, virtuosity, emotion, excitement, great performers and wonderful music." The festival's theme, "Ancestral Voices," had a loose connection to some of the concerts, but the most significant aspect of the weekend was the opportunity for London audiences to hear musicians that very rarely perform in the UK, such as Lionheart and the Huelgas Ensemble. Both are expert proponents of a cappella polyphony, and both chose to perform notably early and unusual repertoire.

The six New York men who sing under the banner of Lionheart kept a late-Friday-night audience entranced with a programme titled "Il Laudario di Cortona ", an anthology of laude (vernacular sacred songs) from medieval and Renaissance Italy that would have originally been performed in a relatively secular environment. Il Laudario di Cortona is the earliest surviving collection of laude, produced between 1250 and 1300. Richard Porterfield, one of the Lionheart baritones, transcribed the selections from the book performed here, and also edited several other 14th- and 15th-century laude for the program from original manuscripts. Slightly later repertoire was represented by Innocentius Dammonis, a monk whose sole surviving music was published in Venice in 1508.

Lionheart, consisting of a countertenor, two tenors, two baritones, and a bass, exhibits a meticulously balanced blend; all members of the ensemble have pleasing natural voices ideally suited to the repertoire, and both polyphony and unison passages were sweetly sung and effective (even if at times one might have yearned for something other than a smooth mezzo-forte). Lionheart claims to be a truly collaborative ensemble and does not have a leader or conductor, yet the singers' unity and precision of ensemble was flawless throughout. The program itself was divided into sections dealing with contemplations of the Virgin with Child, the Annunciation, Nativity, St. Francis of Assisi (whose followers invented the lauda tradition) and the Crucifixion. All were kept fresh by the performers changing formation and taking turns with solos, but the most outstanding musical moments were provided by the exquisite Latin homophony of Dammonis, an outstanding composer whose lost corpus of work must be lamented.

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

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