VOCES8’s Fauré, Bach, Barber – and Elgar – Cadogan Hall concert is warming, consoling and beautiful

United KingdomUnited Kingdom LIVE From London Spring – Fauré, Bach, Barber: Andrea Haines (soprano), Jonathan Pacey (bass), VOCES8, English Chamber Orchestra / Barnaby Smith (conductor). Streamed from the Cadogan Hall, London, 2.4.2021. (CC)

VOCES8, English Chamber Orchestra and Barnaby Smith (conductor)

Bach – Cantata, O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens, BWV 118

Barber – Adagio for Strings

FauréCantique de Jean Racine, Op.11; Requiem, Op.48 (both orch. Taylor Scott Davies)

Fascinating to have the motet/cantata O Jesu Christ, Mein Lebens Licht here (its catalogue number, BWV 118, places it amongst the cantatas, but Bach described it himself as ‘motet’ in two surviving autographs). Bach takes a 1608 hymn by Martin Brehms and sets it for chorus, with instrumental prelude and interjections. It fits the Eastertide/Christian emphasis on death very well, the first stanza dwelling on the temporary nature of our sojourn on Earth, the second stanza articulating the protagonist’s trust that Heaven’s gate will be open wide once life has run its course. The VOCES8 performance comes at a time when Philippe Herreweghe and his Collegium Vocale Gent have just released their interpretation (on the Phi label, out 26 March), a clean-cut, beautifully lamenting reading coupled with Cantatas BWV 45 and 198. The VOCES8 interpretation, conducted by Barnaby Smith, was rather smoother around the edges, and very, very beautiful in its own right; the journey to Barber’s Adagio (a string orchestra transcription of the slow movement from that composer’s Op.11 String Quartet) did perhaps not seem so far. This piece has long been associated with remembrance, and when one hears a performance as powerful as this it is easy to hear why. Beautifully paced by Smith, it rose inevitably to a fierce climax before the caressing final gestures led us into silence.

A rather nice touch is to have the ‘programme notes’ interspersed into the video itself, read out while appropriate scenes, or footage of rehearsal, are shown. The gorgeous, famous Cantique de Jean Racine was heard here in a new orchestration by Taylor Scott Davies, lush and perfectly calibrated in its perfuming. The balance between VOCES8 and the small orchestra was perfectly achieved in the recording. Special mention, perhaps, for the oboe solos of John Roberts and the horn solo of the experienced John Thurgood.

Hearing the Fauré Requiem with a chamber choir is revelatory; the small harmonic shift in the opening movement’s ‘Luceat’ has surely rarely registered so powerfully; lovely to hear how the double basses underpin the close of that section prior to the faster ‘Requiem aeternam’, this latter taken briskly by Smith. The sheer excellence of VOCES8 pays huge dividends in the exposed, fragile opening of the ‘Offertorium’, or in the confident shaping of the harmonies at ‘ne cardant obscurum’.

Singing from within the choir, Jonathan Pacey’s ‘Hostias’ was a masterclass in eloquence, his higher register full toned; a more impassioned ‘Fac eas, Domine’ gave contour to the movement; the end was magic itself.

A glorious solo violin played by John Mills lighting the gentle strains of the ‘Sanctus’ allowed for as much contrast as Fauré will allow for the fanfare-figures of ‘Hosanna in excelsis’. With Smith eschewing conducting the opening section, the Pie Jesu was left to soprano Andrea Haines and organist James McVinnie. This sounded properly ecclesiastical; Haines has a beautifully pure voice, and phrases spectacularly musically. Slurs were astonishingly clean.

Having only two voices on the opening line of the Agnus Dei (tenors Blake Morgan and Euan Williamson) somehow enhanced their emotional power; and how lovely the violas of the English Chamber Orchestra ‘sang’ in this movement themselves.

Jonathan Pacey’s commanding account of the bass solo in the ‘Libera me’ paved the way for the closest Fauré comes to Hellfire and brimstone at the ‘Dies illa, dies irae’. Of course, it is then left to the ‘In Paradisum’ and VOCES8’s angelical sopranos to allow us to ascend on high. The silence held beautifully at the end, uninterrupted by applause, spoke volumes, and led to a final item, an unannounced ‘Nimrod/Lux Aeterna’ from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, Op.36 in a superb arrangement, again by Taylor Scott Davis, dedicated to those who ‘have been lost, suffered loss, or have been impacted by the global pandemic’. An incredibly touching way to end.

If you’re wondering how it was still VOCES8 with Barnaby Smith conducting, his place in the line-up was taken by alto Molly Noon (who, in VOCES8’s new line-up, is actually second soprano as of 2021).

This concert is an absolute gift: warming, consoling, beautiful and, in the choice of the Elgar, respectful.

Colin Clarke

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