Last night’s Toronto Summer Music Festival offering was Tears of Exile; a series of settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, sung by the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal. There were excerpts from Renaissance era settings by Tallis, Lassus and Morales together with VaughanWilliam’s O vos Omnes and Mauersberger’s Wie liegt die Stadt du wüst; the last two riffing off the ancient theme to “lament” respectively the Great War and the destruction of Dresden in 1945.
The earlier pieces had much in common. All chose to set the initial Hebrew letters of the sections rather, as conductor Andrew McAnerney pointed out, in the manner of an initial capital in an illuminated manuscript(*). All of them used the occasional solo line and some parts where the choir was singing in sections but mainly we were hearing polyphony with many lines and most of the choir singing most of the time. If you played me an excerpt from one of these works I would easily recognize the period but if you asked me whether it was Tallis, Lassus or Morales I’d likely be stumped.
The modern pieces made an interesting contrast. The tonal language wasn’t so different but the use of the choir was. The Vaughan Williams piece used a female soloist to carry much of the early part of the text with the high voices joining in more or less as backing. It wasn’t until maybe half way through that the low voices came in at all. The scoring was much less dense. Most of the time only a few singers were singing with the full choir used exceedingly sparingly. Mauersberger, by contrast, used the full choir much more but incorporated a much wider dynamic range than the Renaissance pieces and also used the extremes of the choristers’ vocal range more. The effect was to be much less meditative, more emotional, though still very beautiful.
There were twelve singers singing a cappella last night and it was just about perfect. Where a singer needed to assert him or herself as a sort of soloist they did before blending back into the extremely smooth, well blended sound of the ensemble. The balance between individual voices and sections was as seamless as could be. It was very fine and very, very beautiful.
* The original Hebrew version of the Lamentations is an acrostic with each line beginning with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This is preserved in many later translations including the Vulgate from which the texts were taken for all but the Mauersberger, which was sung in German. The text for that comes, I assume, from the Lutheran version.