The Lammermuir Festival
Saint Mary’s Parish Church, Haddington
For the tenth anniversary of the Lammermuir Festival, I thought I would investigate the cerebral buzz surrounding Vox Luminis upon one of their rare, rare visits to Scotland. The accepted invitation by the Belgium-based Vox Luminis is quite a coup for the festival orgainsers, who can now effortlessly add the phrase ‘Beautiful Voices’ to the festival’s emblematic ‘Beautiful Music, Beautiful Places,’ slogan. At the head of this tassle of timbres stands the charming Lionel Meunier, who adds his own pristinely-sung bass to the proceedings. Around him the vocal chords of his cleverly assembled team embed themselves in each other like the towers of a Templar fortress, conjuring such soul-stilling music that I can still hear them singing as I type.
The performance overtures with a single faceless sirensong growing stronger & clearer from the depths of the church. When this stranger is done singing & setting us all atrance, Vox Luminis arrive into our ken slowly & methodically, like freemasons at an initiation ceremony. Haddington Saint Mary’s offers divine acoustics, but they still need to be worked, & I was completely enthralled by the symbiotic serenity of the singing as they decorated the anonymous Lamentation de la Vierge au pied de la Croix, Antonio Lotti’s Crucifus a 8, Claudio Monteverdi’s Adoramus to Christe & Lamentio della Ninfa, Allessandro Della Ciaia’s Lamentatio Virginis, then after the interval the elongated ecstasy of Domenico Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater.
This centuries-old selection of soft & subtle sacred works are all inspired by the Virgin Mary. As a spectacle, they were delivered in a most appropriate setting & performed with immaculate precision either side of the trance-popping pauses. Such mature solemnity – tho’ streaked with a clear & optimistic mountain lakewater – contains the essence of Christianity & its Trinity, purified by ten honey-tongued singers & their dulcimerean instruments, including the lovely, long lute-like Theorbo played by Simon Linne. As a guitarist myself I watched him play with some fascination as he created chord shapes & plucked individual notes, bass-guitar-style, at the same time.
For each piece the ensemble moved about with marvellous variety – sometimes just a soloist, sometimes quartets & sometimes a complete & unified whole. Of the cantos, the four descending bass-notes & the wind-willowing phrases of Lamento della Ninfa (1638) is the most perfect and spendid thing I have now ever heard in my life! I have no more words to describe it, I was positively weeping within. Its purveyors, Vox Luminis, are rather what happens when a young swan ruffles its plumage – incorruptible natural beauty. Their music is what you’d expect Dante was hearing in his head as he was imagining the Paradisio. For myself in 2019, it felt as if I was gently cruising down the Nile in one of Cleopatra’s pleasure-barques, the dip of the galley oars rising & falling to the beat of the jaw-jangling, spine-tingling Theorbo.
Damian Beeson Bullen