United Kingdom LIVE From London Spring: VOCES8 with Jonathan Dove (piano). Livestreamed from VOCES8 Centre, London, 13.2.2021. (CC)
Alec Roth – Stargazer (2015, VOCES8 commission)
The Triumphs of Oriana (1601):
John Mundy – Lightly She Whipped O’er the Dales
Thomas Hunt – Hark! Did ye ever hear such sweet singing?
Thomas Weelkes – As Vesta was from Lathmos Hill descending
Sibelius – Be Still My Soul (Finlandia)
Jonathan Dove – Vertue; The Passing of the Year.
Kate Rusby – Underneath the Stars (arr. Jim Clements)
Trad. – Danny Boy (arr. Joshua Pacey)
… and so VOCES8 unleashes another torrent of vocal splendour in their new series of concerts, LIVE from London Spring (click here).
The format from previous series remains constant; an interview, the concert itself with introductions between pieces and finally a discussion in the round.
Here there is a quarter-hour interview with Jonathan Dove by Barnaby Smith; we also see Dove playing Chopin’s Etude, Op.10/4, no small ask and an indication of his prowess as a pianist, a skill he needs for the piano part to his own The Passing of the Year. Good, too, to have an introduction to Dove’s works, including his opera Flight (written for Glyndebourne) and his most famous choral piece, Seek Him that maketh the Seven Stars.
There is also an upbeat video that suggests that with the coming of Spring, we can forget that frozen faucet, a trifle optimistic given recent conditions. But it is the music that matters and this concert celebrated rebirth, the turning of the wheel of the year as Spring is (potentially) birthed and we emerge from the introversion of Winter.
The four songs of Alec Roth’s Stargazer include a plea to take time to see what is around us, the second talks of stargazing, while the third includes the brilliantly named character Timothy Toodletrot, who spends all his time stargazing, while the final song is an a cappella train as it travels through the countryside. The initial ‘Stand and Share’ (from William Henry Davies’s Leisure) is gentle, full of sweet regret for lost opportunities to enjoy our surroundings. ‘The Star-Lit Stairs’ began with the angelic voices of Eleonore Cockerham and Katie Jeffries-Harris; it feels like all voices of the ensemble get a chance to shine in this gently melancholic song. Roth works with poignant dissonances in this setting of a tract from The Flâneur by Oliver Wendell Holmes. And VOCES8 traced the music’s sweet swell, its ebb and flow, perfectly. Interesting how the whole demeanour of the music changes for ‘Star-Struck’, the story of Timothy Toodletrot (from Star-Struck by Else Harriet Raspin); there is more of a narrative, complemented by the lovely vocal representation of movement in ‘In the train’ (text James Thomson).
Moving to the Renaissance, and three of the 25 madrigals of The Triumphs of Orianna (‘Orianna’ referring to Queen Elizabeth I), it offered VOCES8 a chance to show how they can adapt stylistically so well; but it also showed how they bring life to the music. Rarely can Mundy’s Lightly She Whipp’d O’er the Dales have had such a light touch (soprano Andrea Haines particularly impressive here)., while the phrase, ‘Long live fair Orianna’ was particularly joyous. Thomas Hunt’s Hark! Did ye ever hear such sweet singing? with its gorgeously antiphonal echoings of the word ‘Hark’ is an absolute delight of a piece; there was a goodly amount of theatre to this performance, too. The bubbly Weelkes was heard before, in VOCES8’s Choral Dances programme back in Autumn 2020, here nicely augmented by some comedic gestures regarding the composer’s prolongations. All three madrigals end with that phrase ‘Long live fair Orianna’; lots of fun to be had within this lovely segment.
A rather nice coupling next: a verse of Sibelius’s Be still my soul (better known as Finlandia) before Dove’s Vertue, a 2019 VOCES8 commission to a text by metaphysical poet George Herbert, also heard before in the series (Live from London’s After Silence). Radiant, Dove’s Vertue seemed to unfold in a slow uncurling, impeccably judged, perfectly balanced. It led to The Passing of the Year, for double chorus (two x four-part choirs, so perfect for VOCES8). It begins in Winter, longing for Spring via the words of Blake; Spring appears via Blake too, as Summer emblazons itself through Emily Dickinson and George Peel. Autumn (Blake again) passes, as ‘Adieu farewell earth’s bliss’ takes us to the darkest part of the year before New Year’s Eve forms its celebrations, Janus-headedly ringing out the old and bringing in the new.
Here, VOCES8 was joined by the composer on the piano. The performance was everything one could wish for, from the drooping lines as if ice is melting. ‘Answer July’ (Emily Dickinson) in its fleet-footedness and rapid-fire piano part seems to recall the train of Roth’s Stargazer. How dark, though, the harmonic terrain of ‘Hot sun, cool fire’ (words George Peele), a plea to embrace our dark side (‘Black shade, fair nurse, shroud me and please me’). Peele’s text seems to particularly inspire Dove – the writing here, both chorally and pianistically, is utterly remarkable, tempered by the descending lines of ‘Ah, Sunflower’ (Blake), themselves heard in emotive prolongation in the line ‘’Lord have mercy on us!’ from Thomas Nashe’s ‘Adieu! Farewell earth’s bliss!’. The contrast between the two final songs is remarkable (and all credit to Dove for his invocation of bells in that fiendishly difficult piano part in Tennyson’s ‘Ring out, wild bells’).
The final two items of the concert were more in the nature of programmed encores, but also gave us the opportunity to wind down after Dove’s magnificent, and emotionally draining, work. Remaining with the stellar theme of the concert and returning us to where we started, Underneath the Stars featured a lovely bass solo from Jonathan Pacey. And it was, in fact, Jonathan Pacey’s brother, Joshua, who arranged the universally known Danny Boy so well for the final, valedictory piece.
An auspicious start to the festival: next up is Apollo5 on Valentine’s Day in a programme entitled Love from London.