Musicall Compass: Lamentations

Lassus Lamentations & folk laments
Musicall Compass & Moira Smiley
St John’s, Smith Sq. 1 February 2017

The Musicall Compass have undertaken some fascinating projects in the past, combining vocal music with, for example, dance in a memorable performance of Buxtehude’s Memba Jesu Nostri in Christ Church Spitalfields. On this occasion they interspersed the nine five-voice Lamentations of Orlando di Lasso with folk laments from Eastern Europe, sung by Moira Smiley. Written to be performed during the three days leading up to Easter, the Lamentations set verses from Jeremiah’s rather morbid reflections on the decline of Jerusalem: ‘How doth the city sit solitary .. she has become a widow’. Three settings are sung on each day, each finishing with the lament Ierusalem, Ierusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum (Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return unto the Lord thy God).

A distinctive feature of Lamentations by all composers is the included of the alphabetic Hebrew letters that started each verse in the Vulgate Bible (Aleph, Beth, Ginel, Daleth etc). In the case of Lassus, these little miniatures offer delightful little essays in counterpoint. The five singers of Musicall Compass stood on the highest step at the back of the St John’s, Smith Square stage, with director Crispin Lewis conducting sideways on from one side. The nine Lamentations and the interspersed folk melodies proceeded without interruption. The folk laments came from Bulgaria, Hungary, Bosnia, Ukraine, Macedonia, Croatia, Herzegovina and, curiously, Appalachia. With the exception of the latter, these cultures have benefitted from an enormous number of influences, including Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman. The resulting musical mix is compelling, particularly in the first few songs with their distinctive ornamentation, ‘catches’ in the voice, and whoops.

The evening started with Moira Smiley singing from behind the audience, later moving to different positions for each one. She also included an accordion and banjo for occasional accompaniment, and once added her plaintive voice to one of the Lamentations. The laments were generally about love, rather than any religious yearnings, but were full of the similar intense expression of Jeremiah’s woe. Moira Smiley’s voice is delightfully stable, combining ‘early music’ vocal style with folk. Her subtle stage presence was well thought out and effective.

Crispin Lewis’s conducting was attractively unobtrusive. He focussed on the emotional and expressive nature of Lassus’s extraordinary setting, which uses word-painting on every opportunity.  The five singers sang with a lovely sense of consort, each voice melding with the others. Lassus often uses variations of texture, including smaller groups of singers, to reinforce the text, so the ability of individual voices to blend in different groupings is important. It is a shame that more people weren’t there to experience a delightful evening.

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