English Royal Funeral Music
So here they are again – last year’s Gramophone Recording of the Year winners back with a new disc, parts of it recorded the very day after Lionel Meunier was making his acceptance speech with bewilderment, charm and an endearing surprise expletive. That winning disc was an afterlife-embracing programme built around Schütz’s Musicalische Exequien and the new one is another meeting with mortality, this time with music for the funeral of Mary II of England at its heart. Following recent researches, that means a sequence made from Morley’s Funeral Sentences plus Purcell’s simpler version of Thou knowest, Lord, along with his March and Canzona for brass, and oboe-band marches by Paisible and Tollett, but this is not a reconstruction disc and there is also room for Purcell’s intense earlier settings of the Burial Sentences, as well as his elegy for Mary, O dive custos (performed by two beautifully matched, pure-toned sopranos from the group), and two more of his finest full anthems. We also get Weelkes’s madrigalian lament for Morley, Tomkins’s rarely heard, low-voiced Burial Sentences and his heartfelt Sad Pavan for These Distracted Times.
It is a carefully themed programme, then, offering some of 17th-century England’s finest music; but much thought has clearly gone into the performances as well. As before, the music is for the most part floated lightly into a welcoming acoustic – one might call it a classically ‘English’ choral sound – but any suspicions of coolness are easily dispelled by the commitment shown to the meaning of both music and text. You would expect as much in the close detail of Purcell’s word-setting – realised here with sound understanding – but you can really sense that the musicians are on a mission when a piece as outwardly unassuming as Morley’s In the midst of life can be shaped with such expressive power. Once again, Vox Luminis have touched the heart with their calm interpretative intelligence and vocal beauty.