News and Reviews
PRAISE FOR LUCEAT
As Easter eggs often go on sale the minute the Christmas decorations come down, the anticipation of this seasonal celebration can quickly fade into the background, so that it later creeps up on us, especially if you’re not a churchgoer. An evening of liturgical music was therefore a surprising reminder that Easter, and thus Spring, is well and truly on the way. I did not expect a freezing evening in March to be the moment I first looked optimistically towards the season of new life, especially not in a draughty church, but Luceat’s lively, moving performance of Bach’s St John Passionensured the audience did just that.
Luceat’s mission is to bring liturgical music to appropriate settings: as a choral performance in a church, this was not a sermon, but somewhere between an opera and a carol concert. Aforementioned chill aside, the evening provided a feast for the senses: we arrived to a pleasant but not overpowering aroma of recently-burned incense, and over the course of the evening we were treated to note-perfect music in a beautiful setting. Our venue, the gorgeous Pusey House Chapel, was the perfect size: large enough to accommodate a decent crowd, but small enough to feel intimately connected to the music, even from the back. The brilliant acoustics meant that the space was filled with rich sounds for the full runtime, save for the occasional punctuating silence.
The Johannes Passion explores Jesus’ suffering and death by setting the Gospel of John to music. The familiar sequence of betrayal, arrest, trial and execution is interspersed with arias and ariosos reflecting on each moment’s significance, based (as Artistic Director, James Fellows, explained) on meditations by Martin Luther. These latter pieces were perhaps where Bach felt more freedom to be creative, not as strictly bound by the narrative arc, but in the more recognisable episodes, a lot of interest was generated by the choir’s characterization. Without props or costumes, the performers injected personality and intrigue to their characters. Thus, Dan Gilchrist’s Christus was infused with humility, Seb Hill captured the appropriate indignation of his Evangelist at the unjust events he narrated, and the entire ensemble inhabited the energy of the angry mob baying for blood when calling for Jesus to be crucified.
While there were of course solemn and sombre moments, and drama heightened by minor keys, what stuck with me most were the moments of hopeful and even joyful response to the idea of the salvation brought by Jesus’ sacrifice. This was exemplified by Aria S, where the interaction between the flute and vocals put me in mind of a bee or butterfly darting amongst spring flowers. The Incarnation theology behind this work emphasises the interconnectedness of life and death: for Jesus to be truly ‘the Word made flesh’, i.e. God made human, he would necessarily have to experience death, because our mortality is a fundamental facet of human nature. In this way it is fitting that a rather grim tale is a benchmark for the return of spring: the idea of decay facilitating new life is one that is not unique to Christianity but found in many religions, philosophies and worldviews, and as such could provide a message of hope for many.
Daily Info, Oxford (March 2022)
This is the wholly excellent first CD by a newly-formed Oxbridge orientated choir, but already with wider membership, under their young 21-year old director James Fellows. The avowed intention: +0 dedicate themselves to the specialised recording of the liturgy, with the added purpose of highlighting its dramatic as well as narrative content. Luceat translates as "shine' which is exactly what the choir does in this their launch project. The CD focusses on the Feast of the Assumption (15 August) which centres on the belief that the body and soul of Mary, mother of Jesus, was instantaneously received into Heaven - a Roman Catholic dogma, actually only defined 71 years ago, but adhered to with varying degrees of belief since around 600 AD. The earliest relevant musical offerings recorded here, some for the first time, date from the 16th century, and notably feature the neglected music of the Spaniard Francisco Da Penalosa, who spent most of his career in Seville. where he died, but also made visitations to Burgos and to the Papal Chapel in Rome. Only a handful of copies of his music were made, and, of course, without the benefit of print. So this is a purposeful addition to the repertoire for the Eucharist. The office of Evensong is a mainly English affair, with a charming psalm chant from Herbert Howells and the Mag & Nunc given over to the now universally performed Jackson in G setting. Throughout, Luceat proves itself able at adapting to the varying intonal nuances demanded down the ages, producing some truly luscious harmonic blending. This was recorded in the fine acoustic of the Guild Chapel of the Holy Cross, Stratford-Upon-Avon. Two organ voluntaries provide a bonus. Aptly, Bach's florid Fugue on the Magnificat, played a tad faster than advisable, and the Final from Widor's Sixth Symphony to provide some concluding joie-de- vivre.
Joe Riley, Organists Review (September 2021)