Sunday night’s concert, given by the acclaimed vocal ensemble Vox Luminis, was the second in Wigmore Hall’s series Henry Purcell: A Retrospective that celebrates this 17th century genius. The evening explored both court and church music associated with the English monarchy (Charles II and James II) and included one short item by Matthew Locke and three anthems by Purcell’s slightly older contemporary and mentor John Blow, whose posthumous neglect the chamber forces of Vox Luminis sought to reverse.

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

Comprising (on this occasion) eight singers and seven instrumentalists and directed by Lionel Meunier, Vox Luminis came to prominence in 2012 with their award-winning recording of Schütz’s Musicalische Exequien. Anyone familiar with this superb disc or who heard them earlier this year at St John’s Smith Square will be aware of their specialist interest in vocal music of the 16th-18th centuries. Having repeatedly listened to the Schütz CD I was keen to hear this group in the flesh and see how the two experiences compare. In the end I came away with mixed feelings partly because of the varied quality of the performances but also due to the actual programme in which we were encouraged (in Andrew Pinnock's informative notes) to make “non-invidious Blow-Purcell comparisons”.

So why then begin this rediscovery-style programme with John Blow’s austere four-part anthem “My God, my God, look upon me” – setting words from Psalm 22? Organ and theorbo may have added Lenten gravitas but the singers needed to be far more persuasive in their entreaties to the Almighty and the vocal balance could have improved had a single strident bass not been so dominant. Not a great way to re-evaluate the legacy of John Blow.

Blow’s splendid coronation anthem “God spake sometime in visions” anthem did much to cast the composer in a better light. Written for James II in 1685, its alternating passages for eight part chorus and solo groups form an impressive achievement. Standing behind the players, the singers valiantly sought to project the text, but the density of the writing, wonderful as it is, proved an occasional barrier to clarity. Had rhythms too been less sedate, this magnificent work might have concluded with a more jubilant final “Hallelujah”.

There had been some impressive solo singing earlier and amongst the most notable offerings was Olivier Berten’s grateful tenor in Purcell’s devotional song “An Evening Hymn”. “In guilty night”, from Saul and the Witch of Endor, demonstrated another aspect of Purcell’s art in this rarely performed miniature oratorio, and enabled Barnabás Hegyi, (counter-tenor) Zsuzsi Tóth, (soprano) and Lionel Meunier (bass) to add expressive drama of their own.

After the interval Vox Luminis gave Blow’s anthem “God is our hope and strength” a forthright account, resolute and affirmative, but it was the group’s performance of Purcell’s “Rejoice in the Lord alway” (the well-known “Bell” anthem) that finally revealed some fresh insights into performance practice, and where a little imagination can go a long way. Never have I heard this piece performed with such tavern-like spirit. To the string ensemble was added bassoon, (Lisa Goldberg) a strumming guitar (Simon Linné) and recorder exquisitely played by Lionel Meunier whose flourishes and trill on the final cadence were pure joy. Church choirs so often give po-faced performances of this verse anthem but here, in the secular surroundings of the Wigmore, this non-pious account was a revelation.

The infectious mood found its way into the alto duet “Sound the trumpet”, sung by Barnabás Hegyi and Jan Kullmann with equal tone and clarity, and which prompted an appreciative audience cheer at its close. Predictably, the concert ended with Purcell’s “My heart is inditing” and if this account did not quite convey the atmosphere of a coronation, it made clear the brilliance of its composer. The organ embellishments (Anthony Romaniuk), sprightly rhythms from three violinists and sonorous continuo provided the singers with buoyant support. It was a shame the encore that followed was Thomas Morley’s dour “I heard a voice from heaven” when Purcell’s “Hear my Prayer” would have offered a more appropriate final item.