Early Music Festival Utrecht 2015 part 2: Vox Luminis

“To celebrate this Festival”: Music for Queen Mary II performed by Vox Luminis

The opening concert had ended with music composed by Henry Purcell. One of the concerts of Utrecht’s Early Music Festival on Saturday 29th of August, also contained music by Henry Purcell. Many deem him to be one of England’s greatest composers and his early death at the age of is by some still considered to have been a serious blow to English music.

Henry Purcell composed thoroughly English Baroque music. So it is not surprising his music is performed during this festival with its “England, my England” theme. Vox Luminis and Louis Meunier, artists in residence of this year’s Early Music Festival, performed a selection of courtly and sacred pieces related to Queen Mary II.

Friday was all about an instrument. This concert seemed to be about a life. When Mary was born, her uncle Charles II was still King of England. Charles was succeeded by his brother James II, Mary’s father. Purcell wrote music for James’ coronation.

At the time, nothing gave an inkling of the family drama which was to enfold. Mary was married off to the Dutch Protestant “Stadholder” William of Orange. She moved to a slightly more informal court, spending some winter days skating on the pond which still lies right next to the Dutch Houses of Parliament. The couple was fairly happy.

All changed when Mary’s father remarried and family life kind of derailed. Mary and Ann, her younger sister, not only got a Catholic stepmother. They also got a baby brother and heir to the English throne.

The protestant aristocracy and people started what would become the “Glorious Revolution”. Mary and her husband were invited to England and its throne, while James and his second family would end up as guests in Catholic France.The picture on the Early Music Festival is, by the way, not a portrait of Mary II but from the grave of a lady from an earlier period.

The turmoil this family drama caused, would echo down the centuries to our day and age. An example are the so-called “Troubles”. But when Mary was crowned Queen of England, that lay in a very distant future and England was in a festive mood.

Purcell had written music to celebrate the coronation of James II. So it is not surprising, he also wrote music for Queen Mary. Before the break, Vox Luminis performed Purcell’s birthday “Ode”. Actually, Purcell’s “To celebrate this Festival” had been the theme of a previous Early Music Festival in Utrecht.

Having heard it performed for the first time during a previous Early Music Festival, I was bowled over. So I bought an excellent performance recorded on CD during that festival, years ago. The CD not only includes Purcell’s “Ode to Queen Mary”. It also includes Purcell’s “Funeral Music”.

For after a few years as Queen of England, Mary died of smallpox. The country and her husband were shattered and in deep mourning. Purcell composed one of his most moving pieces, funeral music which would actually be used again at his own funeral – only a few months after Mary’s. Vox Luminis had chosen not only Purcell’s “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary“, but also Morley’s version. Both use selected texts from the Burial Service of the Book of Common Prayer.

Two reviewers actually remarked they did not find the music funereally, not dramatic enough, rather light. But then, the one who had given a lecture that morning as part of the day’s activities, admitted not to be familiar with Purcell’s piece. She had searched Youtube and listened to it for the first time that very morning. It was not serious, not dramatic and fairly airy – no idea what Purcell had tried to capture. Was it looking forward to an after-life? Mary was of course a very popular Queen, remarked the other one.

She asked the first one “… used texts from the Book of Common Prayer – uhh, that is very English isn’t it?” England my England: reviewers who are supposed to say something intelligent about English Baroque music, while being unfamiliar with the music and having no idea why it was important to Purcell to use the Book of Common Prayer.

Sorry: someone reviewing a piece based on the Book of Common Prayer’s Burial Service and not knowing the Book of Common Prayer is English. I silently wondered: had Festival funds run so low, they could not afford knowledgeable and intelligent reviewers? It was to be hoped these two were not receiving any money for showing off such a lack of knowledge and interest in the music, themes, subjects of this evening concert.

The drums with which Purcell’s funeral march opens roll slowly and very dramatically, giving the impression of measured, dragging steps. One imagines being in the silent crowd watching the funeral procession slowly winding past on its way to Westminster Abbey, a service, a grave.

Trumpets join the rolling drums. The court files past. Then follow the texts selected from the burial service. The audience is in the church, witnessing the service and burial. At last, there is the final Amen, which closes a life. And all this is not dramatic enough? This is light and airy?

The break between the festive mood of the first part of the concert and the sad second half, worked brilliantly. The contrast between the exalted, jubilus first part and the shocked, despairing, second half was stressed. The break helped prepare the audience for a totally different mood.

Apart from an occasional hiccup I heard at the start of some songs, Vox Luminis and Lionel Meunier gave a grand performance. They excelled in the second part. The funeral pieces composed by Morley and Purcell were impressively performed. When the music stopped, the public remained silent. After a short moment, there followed a hesitating applause, which – once it increased in volume – was joined by whistles and cat calls of appreciation.

However, for me, my CD and fond memories of an earlier Festival ensure this recording remains my touch stone. Despite Vox Luminis treating its public to a near perfect performance, it was not a mind-blowing, overwhelming experience for me. But then: taste and memories are a highly personal thing.

Vox Luminis ensemble with Lionel Meunier, Saturday 29th 2015, Tivoli-Vredenburg Utrecht
Concert included:
“Birthday Ode to Queen Mary”, Henry Purcell
“Funeral Sentences”, Henry Purcell

Youtube Vox Luminis, Festival de Saintes 2015
Youtube “Coronation anthem”
Youtube “To celebrate this Festival, from Birthday Ode for Queen Mary II”, ensemble La Fenice with Jean Tubéry
Youtube “Purcell, Funeral Music” performed by Choir Clare College Cambridge

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