Subtlety and ineffable beauty are among VOCES8’s traits when singing Live from London

United KingdomUnited Kingdom VOCES8 Live from London – After Silence: VOCES8 Centre, London, 1.8.2020. Available to view if you click here. (CC)


Gibbons – ‘Drop, drop slow tears’
Pärt – ‘The Deer’s Cry’
Parry – Songs of Farewell: No.1, ‘My Soul, there is a country’; No.3, ‘Never weather-beaten sail’; No.4, ‘There is an old belief’
Sibelius‘Be Still My Soul’ (Finlandia)
Dove – ‘Vertue’
Monteverdi – Sesto Libro De Madrigali, Lagrime d’amante al sepolcro dell’amato: ‘Incenerite spoglie, avera tomba’; ‘Ditelo, o fiumi, e voi ch’udiste Glauco’; ‘Darà la notte; Ma te raccoglie, o ninfa, in grembo ’l cielo’; ‘O chiome d’or, neve gentil del seno’; ‘Dunque, amate reliquie, un mar di pianto’
Morten Jansson‘An Elemental Elegy’
Paul Smith‘Nunc dimittis’
Traditional/Paulus – ‘The Road Home’

Rachmaninov – All Night Vespers: ‘Bogoroditse devo’

Live music in our living rooms is hopefully more of a transitory norm than a new normal, but it offers huge opportunities. Live from London is an online festival of vocal music that launched with this concert; I Fagiolini will follow on 8 August, the Academy of Ancient Music on 15 August, The Swingles on 22 August, and the Gesualdo Six on 29 August. Events continue through September and into October. Ticketing is online.

A filmed introduction from Barnaby Smith and his brother Paul from the VOCES8 Centre (St Anne and St Agnes Church) near St. Paul’s in London; a film commissioned from Tim Vaughan engagingly expanded on the venue. I like Barney’s idea of exploring internet problems and logging into the right sites, as well as, finding the car park for the first time at a new venue (it wasn’t plain sailing for me, either, but it’s worth it when you – virtually – get there). Also, there is a filmed Artist Hangout after the concert is finished, with a much more relaxed atmosphere.

The concerts are live, and beautifully filmed in High Definition. The sound is of the same calibre so we can hear every subtlety: notice the careful balancing of the chords in Gibbons’s ‘Drop, Drop Slow Tears’, a performance of held-breath tension and infinite sadness, the purity of the voices remarkable. The words, by Phineas Fletcher, speak of Mary Magdalene washing the feet of Jesus with her tears. The move to the halting beginning of Arvo Pärt’s sacred motet ‘The Deer’s Cry’ is beautifully managed: despite the centuries between the two composers, and the differing musical languages, there is no sense of ripping disjunction. All credit to the ladies’ voices, whose sure pitching enables the dissonances of the upper parts make maximal impact, and for the ensemble as a whole for making the silences speak so powerfully. The text of the Pärt is from the lorica of St. Patrick’s breastplate (a lorica is an inscription on a shield).

And so to the end of the First World War, and the ineffable beauty of Sir Hubert Parry’s choral music in three of the Songs of Farewell, songs that are not only Parry’s own farewell but also to those students he cruelly lost in the war. Powerful in the extreme, the radiant end of the first song (‘My Soul, there is a country’, text Henry Vaughan) seemed a perfect contrast to the interior world of ‘Never weather-beaten sail’ (Thomas Campion), dissonances unveiling themselves with heart-rending effect before ‘There is an old belief’ (James Gibson Lockhart) allowed the ethereal upper voices to float towards Heaven.

Jonathan Dove, a former Composer-in-Residence for VOCES8, provided a setting of the George Herbert poem, ‘Vertue’ – this piece was the culmination of a two-year collaboration. Scored for two equal forces, each SATB, the antiphonal effects are only part of the piece’s slow-moving majesty that leads, with a feeling of inevitability, towards a radiant  close; it was intriguingly preceded by ‘Be Still my Soul’, set to the well-known tune of Finlandia.

Taking a collection from the middle of Monteverdi’s Madrigals Book VI, performed now sitting down with its more intimate scoring of five voices (one female, four male), formed a glorious centrepiece to the concert, performed with full dynamic range from the pianissimi of the second, ‘Ditelo, o fiumi’, to the more robust third, ‘Darà la notte’. The sheer purity of ‘O chiome d’or, neve gentil del seno’ and the hushed reverence of ‘Dunque, amate reliquie, un mar di pianto’ were most memorable.

The second commission, and here receiving its world premiere, was the ‘Elemental Elegy’ by Morten Jansson to a similarly commissioned text by the lyric poet Charles Anthony Silvestri, a piece of great harmonic warmth. Its companion, the ‘Nunc dimittis’ by Paul Smith, offered a plateau of peace, its beauty generated by Smith’s clear harmonic mastery.

The final piece takes a melody taken from a Southern Harmony book, The Road Home which in Stephen Paulus’s version exudes warmth, VOCES8’s lower voices supporting, almost earthing, the choral sound. Rachmaninov’s ‘Bogoroditse devo’ from the All-Night Vigil formed a perfectly balanced encore; almost valedictory, except that there was an audience Q&A to follow (the members of VOCES8 now ensconced on bean bags).

Several of the works here can be found on VOCES8’s most recent disc, After Silence (which deservedly made it to the No.1 slot in the Classical Album Charts): the Gibbons, ‘The Deer’s Cry’ and ‘There is an Old Belief’ come from the ‘Remembrance’ part; the Monteverdi from the ‘Devotion’ section; ‘The Road Home’ from ‘Redemption’ (which part on the disc holds the most spectacularly beautiful arrangement of Mahler’s ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ with soprano Mary Bevan and cor anglais player Nick Deutsch) and finally the Dove and the Jansson from the final section, entitled ‘Elemental’. Click here for the album’s website, and why not try VOCES8 singing the Gibbons on YouTube (click here).

The next concert, that by I Fagiolini on 8 August , will be an all-Monteverdi affair entitled The Ache of Love. At this time of uncertainty, perhaps it is not inappropriate to include the link to donations, so click here.

Colin Clarke

For more about VOCES8 click here.

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