‘Angel Voices, Ever Singing’: Highly Imaginative Presentation by Rachel Podger and VOCES8

United KingdomUnited Kingdom A Guardian Angel, various composers: Rachel Podger (violin), VOCES8 (Andrea Halsey & Eleonore Cockerham [soprano], Chris Wardle & Barnaby Smith [countertenor], Sam Dressel & Blake Morgan [tenor], Rob Clark [baritone], Jonathan Pacey [bass]), Kings Place, London, 29.3.2018. (CS)

Rachel Podger (c) Theresa Pewal
Rachel Podger (c) Theresa Pewal

GibbonsDrop, drop, slow tears
Plainchant – Pater Noster
Biber – Passacaglia in G minor for solo violin, Rosary Sonata No.16, The Guardian Angel
DoveInto thy hands
Matteis – Passaggio rotto, Fantasia, Movimento incognito
MendelssohnDenn er hat seinen engeln beföflen über dir
Rachmaninov – ‘Bogoróditsé Dyevo’ (from All Night Vigil)
Tallis (arr. VOCES8)O nata lux
MacMillanDomine non secundum peccata nostra
TomkinsWhen David Heard
J.S. Bach –  Allemande, Partita for Flute in A minor BWV 1013; Corrente, Partita BWV 1013; Sarabanda, Partita BWV 1013; Bourée Anglaise, Partita BWV 1013
Monteverdi – Adoramus te, Christe
Gibbons – Hosanna to the Son of David
GabrieliAngelus Domine descendit
Owain ParkAntiphon for the Angels (new commission and London premiere)

‘We should pray to the angels, for they are given to us as guardians.’  The words of Saint Ambrose were the guiding light of this thoughtfully composed programme by violinist Rachel Podger and vocal ensemble VOCES8 at Kings Place – most specifically, the Saint’s affirmation that ‘The servants of Christ are protected by invisible, rather than visible, beings.  But if these guard you, they do so because they have been summoned by your prayer’.

The Bible represents the Angels not simply as guardians but as intermediaries between heaven and earth who carry man’s prayers to God.  Podger and VOCES8 embodied those voices of mortal prayer and heavenly intercession in a sequence which interwove Baroque works for unaccompanied violin with a cappella vocal pieces old and new, and which drew upon Podger’s recent and acclaimed recordings, Guardian Angel (2013) and the 2015 disc of Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s Rosary Sonatas.

The stage-craft had been carefully considered.  Podger was a lone lit figure in the darkened Hall One at the start of the concert, as she floated a plea to which the off-stage singers responded with Orlando Gibbons’ devotional reflection Drop, drop, slow tears.  The controlled diminuendo of the successive verses was exquisitely gentle and the ensuing plainchant, Pater Noster, rose seamlessly and naturally from the quasi-silence, before Biber’s Passacaglia assumed the musical mantle.

Antiphonal exchanges of this nature structured the concert, with VOCES8 singing from each side of the gallery before soprano Andrea Halsey descended, joining Podger on the platform for the ensemble’s arrangement of Tallis’s O nata lux (O light born), in which the violin took the highest of the five vocal lines.  After the interval, with all now assembled on stage, VOCES8 – bathed in golden light – formed an ever-changing semi-circle as they performed an increasingly celebratory sequence, moving to the fore and behind Podger, spot-lit in blue, the latter’s solo utterances – the movements of J.S. Bach’s Partita for solo flute BWV 1013 arranged and transposed for solo violin – commencing at the rear before emerging through the shifting singers.

Perhaps it was a little mannered at times, but the intent – to create a mood of profound devotional stillness which would enable the pristine beauty of the music to speak and be heard – was surely achieved.  That said, it was nearly scuppered at the start by the late arrival of a couple who could not find their seats in the darkness and were forced to stand throughout the unbroken sequence of items, leather coat and floorboards creaking with equal edginess (though I’m not suggesting it was the fault of the unfortunate pair – where were the ushers?).  The sadly all-too-common intrusions from mobile phone lights and bronchial Londoners were also less than conducive to contemplative mystery.

Ultimately, though, music and musicianship prevailed over minor irritations.  Podger plays with a remarkably consistent serenity and poise, the virtuosity unaffected, almost unnoticeable.  But, there is an underlying rhythmic vigour, which gives shape and coherence to the fluent elaborations and explorations which run, dance, fly and exclaim with unwavering eloquence.  Her fingers move like dancers on the fingerboard, her bow seems weightless in her flexible right hand; but the architecture of the whole has solidity, the phrases purposefully and confidently articulated.  In Biber’s Passacaglia, the re-taking of the bow and the increasing emphasis on the down-bow, allied with strongly cohering harmonic bass notes, built a forward momentum which was enhanced by gleaming flashes as the bow whipped across all four strings.  Podger moved naturally between variations of spiritual intensity to those of technically challenging extravagance.  Overall, the effect is more meditative than dramatic, and there is little of the theatrical spontaneity that one might hear elsewhere, but the sense of flowing invention is never lost.

When the diarist John Evelyn heard violinist-composer Nicola Matteis play, in November 1764, he remarked, ‘I heard that stupendious Violin Signor Nicholao (with other rare Musitians) whom certainly never mortal man Exceeded on that Instrument: he had a strock so sweete, & made it speake like the Voice of a man; & when he pleased, like a Consort of severall Instruments: he did wonders upon a Note […] nothing approch’d the Violin in Nicholas hand: he seem’d to be spiritato’d & plaied such ravishing things on a ground as astonish’d.’  In three works by Matteis (drawn from Other Ayrs, Preludes, Allemandes and Sarabands of 1679) Podger emulated Matteis’ inimitable simplicity and grace, which Charles Burney so admired: the Passaggio rotto, Fantasia and Movimento incognito were characterised by clearly voiced counterpoint and delightfully precise spiccato bowing which was feather-light but bright and clean, and the decorative expression was beautifully executed.

VOCES8 ‘prayers’ were notable for their unblemished blending, pure tone, true intonation and shapely phrasing – and, notably, their confident execution under the unobtrusive direction of countertenor Barnaby Smith.  The ensemble responded effortlessly to the varied nature of the dispersal of and relationships between the voices in the contrasting works, equally accomplished in Jonathan Dove’s anthem, Into thy hands, with its spacious textures and reverberating expanse above a rooting ostinato, and Mendelssohn’s motet for double chorus, Denn er hat seinen engeln beföhlen über dir (For he shall give his angels charge over thee (Psalm 91), which was later modified and integrated into Elijah), the overlapping phrases of which wove together with homophonic warmth and harmonic richness.

I felt that, of the Renaissance items, the English works were less successful (though I use the term relatively) than those drawn from Italy.  Tallis’s O nata lux was mellifluous but more might have been made of the chromatic pungency; the four singers who performed Tomkins’ When David Heard – though confidently off-score – prioritised the animation of individual lines over mutual expression of grief from the first, which meant that the effect of the shift from third-person narration to direct personal lamentation – ‘O my son, Absalom my son’ – in the final lines of the text was diminished.  In Monteverdi’s Adoramus te, Christe, however, small melodic gestures made themselves heard with wonderful ease, tenor Blake Morgan singing with particular expressiveness, and here the individual appeals seemed more fitting to the prevailing aesthetic rhetoric.  Gabrieli’s Angelus Domine descendit shone richly, the final Alleluia beginning as an excited whisper, then flourishing with glowing intensity.

Podger and VOCES8 came together at the conclusions of each half.  James MacMillan’s Domine non secundum peccata nostra (O Lord, repay us not according), a setting for Ash Wednesday, began with apt sombreness, the violin’s striking pizzicatos puncturing the chordal homophony.  The violin inspires a probing mood, contributing diverse textures, including arpeggio string-crossings recalling Pärt and a long solo interjection which suspends the voices before they resume with an urgent plea, ‘Help us, O God, our Saviour’, which here combined determined faith with plaintive need.  The performance concluded with the first London performance of a newly commissioned work by Owain Park, Antiphon for the Angels, which merges texts by Hildegard von Bingen (in Latin and English translation) and St Ambrose – the latter’s prayer, ‘Behold the radiant sun departs’.  Podger’s ethereal ascents and pure harmonics sweetly articulated Park’s response to the texts’ imagery – celestial light and soaring spirits – while features such as the piling up of resonating dissonances and textures, the vibrant oscillations of the lower voices, homophonic stillness and the violin’s fantasia-like incursions into the vocal ensemble conveyed the texts’ goal of rapture.

Of Matteis, Roger North wrote, ‘I have knowne him hold a room full of Gentlemen and ladyes by the Ears for hours and Not a whisper scarce to be perceived among them, which I never observed of any Musicall Enterteinment before or since.’  A similar silence in the capacity-filled Hall One – a silence glowing with admiration, fulfilment and peace – signalled the deep respect and satisfaction of the Kings Place audience at the close.

Claire Seymour

[Quotations from Michael Tilmouth, ‘Nicola Matteis’, The Musical Quarterly, Vol.46/1 (Jan 1960): 22-40.]

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