It seems ironic that the bitter violence of Elizabethan England, a society splintered by religious persecution, should give birth to music of such exceptional poise and serenity as that of Tallis and Byrd, particularly given that there were times in Tudor history when performing this music was in itself a dangerous act. In Vox Luminis' carefully-chosen programme for Cambridge Early Music's Festival of the Voice, we were also introduced to other contemporaneous works by Robert White, John Sheppard, Thomas Tomkins, Robert Ramsey and Thomas Weelkes, all unaccompanied choral pieces of great beauty, skilfully crafted both to display a choir's talent through a range of dazzling feats of musicianship, and to give richly nuanced emphasis to each spiritual text taken.

Vox Luminis © Jozsef Wagner Csapo
Vox Luminis
© Jozsef Wagner Csapo

The theme of the evening, Light and Shadow, meant the pieces chosen naturally focussed on moments of transition in religious life, or human life; works created to greet the dawn or the coming of night, to celebrate birth, and to sympathise with bereavement. The glowing intensity of each piece, richly supported by cascading harmonies, brought both Latin and English words vibrantly alive: all these composers are able to create a sense of the exquisite divine through their music, an idea of perfection so powerful, and so intoxicating, that you begin to feel it might well be worth dying for. The programme culminated in Thomas Morley's glorious Funeral Sentences, music of incredible compassion and beauty, whose very depth of harmony seems to imply a similarly deep empathy with the human condition. 

Vox Luminis, without a conductor or even a leading note (although I did see a tuning fork, it only appeared once), created a warm and wonderfully balanced sound which easily filled the inspiring space of St John's College Chapel, which they used to its full extent, singing certain pieces from the back, or by standing in a circle on the sanctuary, as well as facing the audience in a traditional curve. With silken turns and supple endings to all their lines, the choir was utterly clear and articulate, without hammering (or hamming up) consonants. Timing was excellent, and a strong sense of team spirit, passion and communal enjoyment shone out in the singers' warm tone and confident flair. Occasional tenor and bass solo moments were also brilliantly executed.

The evening opened with Tallis' O Nata Lux, its supreme richness of well-seasoned harmonies perfectly sung with smooth, balanced tone. Tallis' Videte miraculum, with its wonderful cascades of sound and swelling chords, was a celebration of the sensual power of unaccompanied singing. The call and response structure of Robert White's Christe, qui lux es et dies gave it an interestingly hypnotic shape, while its harmonies became ever more complex. Sheppard's In manus tuas used voices in unison, apart, then picked out a couple of voices before returning to unison: originality and variety in the composer's handling of voices became a creative preoccupation in several pieces.

Tomkins' When David Heard was a fantastically moving vignette of a father mourning the death of his son, partly inspired by the death of the young Prince Henry, fully imagined and realised with clever inbuilt musical imagery. Weelkes' Death hath deprived me explored chords from refreshingly new angles, using shading and dissonance: and the full programme explored many more pieces, including Ramsey's emotional How are the mighty fall'n, Tallis' unearthly Hear the voice and the prayer, and Sheppard's stunning In pace, all with harmonies shimmering away like watered silk, constantly shifting and changing and developing, yet always beautiful.

I left St John's feeling that I'd probably just heard one of the best pieces of choral singing I have ever had the pleasure to witness; and thinking that this has to be one of the most satisfying of all musics to listen to, brimming with joy and sadness, life and death, hope and regret, confusion and understanding, in equal measure.