United Kingdom Three Choirs Festival  – Nuns and Roses: Papagena (Elizabeth Drury, Abbi Temple, Suzzie Vango [sopranos], Suzie Purkis, Sarah Tennant-Flowers [altos]) St Mary de Crypt Church, Gloucester 31.7.2019. (JQ)
Flory Jagoda (arr. Suzzie Vango) – Hamisha asar
Scarlatti – Cor mio deh non languire
Hildegard of Bingen – O virtus sapientiæ
Kedrov – Octe nash
Tone Krohn – Det lisle banet
Scottish trad (arr. Papagena) – My love’s like a red, red rose
Matti Hyökki – On suuri sun rantas
Jaacko Matyjarvi – Pseudo-Yoik Lite
Joni Mitchell (arr. Jim Clements) – River
Don MacDonald – When the Earth Stands Still; Fusion
Guns N’ Roses – Sweet Child O’ Mine
Jim Clements – The woman’s IF
Jetse Bremer – Sig No More, Ladies
Libby Larsen – Jack’s Valentine
Imogen Heap – Hide and Seek
Purcell (arr. Gunnar Eriksson) – Music for a while
A long musical day that began in Cirencester at 11 am with James Gilchrist’s recital (review) and took in an evening performance of Israel in Egypt ended some 12 hours later with this late-evening concert which finished after 11:15pm. To be honest, in normal circumstances I would have determined that two substantial concerts in one day was enough but the prospect of hearing the female vocal quintet, Papagena encouraged me to make an extra effort. I first encountered this group last year when I reviewed their album The Darkest Midnight. I said then that as soon as I put the CD into the player, I was ‘instantly hooked by the bewitching sound of Papagena’. Naturally, I was keen to discover if they’d make the same impact when heard live.
The programme which they presented tonight has the same title as their first CD, which I believe is no longer available. One or two items – such as the Don MacDonald pieces – have been imported from The Darkest Midnight. A quick glance at the list of pieces performed will confirm that the musical choices were nothing if not eclectic. These five singers ranged far and wide – geographically, stylistically and linguistically – in this programme. To everything they brought a great professionalism and zest and if I describe the presentation as slick, I mean that as a compliment.
The venue was the Church of St Mary de Crypt in the centre of Gloucester. This small church, which dates back to the middle ages, was reopened a few months ago after a significant refurbishment programme. Still used for worship, it also seeks to act as a venue for community activities. The nave became a small, welcoming performance space. Papagena used the physical space with great intelligence, moving round the nave at various times the better to enhance the music. So, for example, their opening number, a Bosnian Sephardic Jewish song, was begun at the back of the church, behind the audience, and the singers gradually made their way up the aisles of the church to gather in front of us. A little later, for the piece by Hildegard of Bingen, they withdrew towards the sanctuary. The distancing from us and the purity of their voices enhanced Hildegard’s music greatly.
We heard a number of Scandinavian folk songs, all sung in their original languages. I should mention that the entire programme was delivered from memory, which made the linguistic feats, to say nothing of the precision of their singing, all the more remarkable. There were serious items, but the singers clearly had a lot of fun with several numbers and that fun came across to us. One piece that drew an amused response from the audience was The woman’s IF. This poem, a female response to Kipling’s famous poem, was set to music for Papagena by Jim Clements and it’s obvious from their witty delivery of it that they love it. In a very different vein, Imogen Heap’s Hide and Seek is a very sad piece and the performance was very touching.
They included a couple of pieces by the Canadian, Don Macdonald. When the Earth Stands Still is a beguiling piece, founded on lovely close harmonic writing. The official programme ended with MacDonald’s Fusion. This is a wordless piece which is delivered using vocalisation of a lot of different sounds. It’s on the album that I reviewed and I fear I didn’t care for it at all. The piece still doesn’t do much for me but when seen and heard live and performed with the infectious verve of Papagena it makes a better impression.
There was an encore and it was a real treat. In complete contrast to Fusion – so wisely taking the temperature down – Papagena gave us a Georgian hymn to the Virgin Mary. This slow, intensely beautiful piece was raptly sung and gave me a final reminder of why I had previously used the term ‘bewitching sound’ to describe Papagena. It was a shame that during their concert we could hear the persistent dull thudding of ‘music’ from a pub across the street but even this was just a small irritant which didn’t prevent the sell-out audience from enjoying this highly entertaining programme.
It’s one of the joys of a festival such as this that within half an hour of hearing Handel’s Israel in Egypt in the Cathedral one can go to a small, intimate venue and hear five unaccompanied voices deliver an eclectic entertainment – and all at a similarly high standard of musicianship. I was delighted to have the opportunity to experience Papagena performing live. They are a remarkable group and I hope to hear them again before long.