This was the final concert of the fifth Temple Winter Festival, a well-chosen programme focussing on the Virgin Mary, drawing on composers’ responses to largely Marian-based texts from the sixteenth-century to the present day, bringing together Praetorius and Pott, Scheidt and Stopford as well as appropriate plainsong texts used for links.
Michael and Hieronymus Praetorius (unrelated) bookended the first half and from the opening strains of a beautifully paced ‘Est ist ein Ros’ entsprungen’ it was clear why VOCES8 commands such renown – impeccable tuning, blend and intelligent musicianship (which can be heard from other vocal groups) but also the super-attuned connection with one other, and since much of the music is sung from memory there is an unbeatable rapport with audiences.
To Hieronymus Praetorius belongs the eight-part Magnificat, a setting that alternates chant with elaborate writing and where vivid word-painting can be heard, here interspersed by the composer’s settings of two macaronic carols to create a seamless and intriguing three-in-one of seasonal texts. A neat idea; however a wider vocal palette and dynamic range was needed to be truly effective, resulting in an element of relentlessness that had been absent in radiant accounts of Britten’s ‘Hymn to the Virgin’ (its four-part writing spatially separated) and some Rachmaninov, this last remarkable for VOCES8 sustaining the music’s long-breathed lines – gloriously sung and deeply evocative.
Inspiration has certainly favoured Philip Stopford (born 1977) whose two settings were given gold-plated realisations. ‘Ave maris stella’ is well-crafted accessible music (shamelessly attractive melodic lines) and there is no doubting an impressive talent here, not least in ‘Lully, Lulla, Lullay’ (Coventry Carol) during which the radiant voice of Andrea Halsey soared above rocking rhythms – exquisite.
Highlights of the second half included Francis Pott’s evocative ‘Balulalow’ – its elusive harmonies well-served in this assured account in which the singers cherished every harmonic twist and delayed resolution. Equally confident was Jonathan Dove’s ‘The Three Kings’, with words by Dorothy L. Sayers, the final verse telling of the oldest king bringing gold was extraordinarily vigorous. Memorable too was Franz Biebl’s ‘Ave Maria’ in which ascending lines and melting concords added to its heavenward contemplation – performed with consummate ease.
Two close-harmony arrangements provided encores; ‘Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town’ and Sammy Cahn & Jule Styne’s ‘Let it Snow’ – further evidence of VOCES8’s versatility.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)