A Choral Tapestry
Anton BRUCKNER (1824 - 1896) Os Justi [4.41]
William BYRD (1540 - 1623) Vigilate [3.36]; Kyrie (Mass for Four Voices) [2.19]
Claudio MONTEVERDI (1576 - 1643) Cantate Domino [1.44]
Tomas Luis de VICTORIA (1548 - 1611) O Magnum Mysterium [4.09]
Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (1525 - 1594) Magnificat Primi Toni [4.25]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833 - 1897) Warum ist das Licht gegeben? [8.18]
Traditional arr Michael TIPPETT (1905 - 1998) Go down Moses [2.59]
Orlando GIBBONS (1583 - 1625) O Clap your Hands [3.55]
Max REGER (1873 - 1916) Das Agnus Dei [1.59]; Wir glauben an einem Gott [1.55]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833 - 1897) Fest- und Gedenkspruche [7.51]
Traditional arr David BLACKWELL Steal Away [4.10]
Josef RHEINBERGER (1839 - 1901) Abendlied [2.34]
John TAVENER (b. 1944) The Lamb [3:56]
William BYRD (1540 - 1623) Agnus Dei (Mass for Four Voices) [3.57]
Voces8 (Andrea Haines (soprano), Emily Dickens (soprano), Chris Wardle (counter-tenor), Barnaby Smith (counter-tenor), Charles MacDougall (tenor), Robert Smith (tenor), Paul Smith (baritone), Dingle Yandell (bass))
rec. Brinkburn Priory, 4-7 March 2011
Voces8 are an eight-voiced vocal ensemble founded in 2003 by ex-choristers from Westminster Abbey. They have become known for their superb choral singing, developing a repertoire which encompasses everything from renaissance polyphony to contemporary a cappella.
On this disc they aim to reflect their diverse musical influences. The discís title is A Choral Tapestry, and diverse it certainly is with music ranging from Monteverdi through to Tavener. Though, in fact, their chosen repertoire mainly splits into three groups. Early music Ė Monteverdi, Palestrina, Byrd, Victoria and Gibbons; 19th century German romantic Ė Brahms, Reger, Bruckner and Rheinberger; contemporary Ė Tavener and Tippett, plus a spiritual arranged by David Blackwell. Brahms is the only composer represented by a multi-movement work, his Fest- und Gedenkspruche. The recitalís centre of gravity is very much German romantic, which isnít a period that you associate with eight-voice vocal ensembles known for singing with one voice to a part. Generally the 19th century works are carefully chosen from pieces which reflect the composerís interest in music of earlier periods.
They open with Brucknerís glorious motet Os Justi which is quite superbly sung, though frankly I would have rather have liked a little more choral depth. Singing with only eight voices does mean that the group can achieve miraculous unanimity in the shaping of the phrases, but I just wanted a bit more weight. This is a very artful performance, where the singers take advantage of the remarkable degree of control that they have to shape the music.
The early works are sung with a very fine sense of line and pure tone - all rather cool and very English This beautifully moulded cleanliness works well for the Byrd and Palestrina but the Victoria could take far more. I longed for a blast of southern warmth or the sound of Westminster Cathedralís vivid trebles. Only in the Monteverdi do we get the feeling that we really do travel to foreign climes. Gibbonsí O Clap your Hands is rather disappointing. Perhaps itís the tempo but the line feels choppy and the English text just doesnít come over.
In Brahmsí Warum is das Licht, the groupís smallness means that the chromatic lines are conveyed with fine accuracy, highlighting Brahmsí links to past composers. Some passages need more density of sound. This is more of a problem in the Brahms Fest- und Gedenkspruche; here the general sound feels too top heavy and I missed a sense of choral weight. Some of the complex passages just didnít gel. I was far too conscious of a group of individual voices.
Of the two Reger pieces, Wir Glauben comes off best as its homophonic, choral-inspired textures seem to lend themselves to the ensembleís treatment. In all the German pieces I was very conscious that the text was often under-played, which is a great disappointment given the diminutive ensemble and the relative closeness of the recording.
When we reach the 20th century style and content gel beautifully so that Tippettís Go down Moses is simply fabulous. David Blackwellís spiritual arrangement is well done also, very much in the Tippett mould. Tavenerís The Lamb is simply superb, purity and accuracy combining in just the right way.
I found the order of the programme to be puzzling. For me the recital didnít cohere and I rather regretted that the group had not concentrated on a single area. The 19th century works would have come over better if there had been more breadth. Adding some Mendelssohn and concentrating on the links to earlier chorale based music would have worked well. Equally, if they had reduced the number of German Romantic pieces and introduced some other flavours to create a real tapestry.
The CD leaflet does not really help with understanding the raison díÍtre behind the programme. There is a single fold-out leaflet with a highly stylised, very posed picture of the choir, plus texts, translations and a rather frustrating article about the music. Of their programme, it has this to say ĎThe album aims to present both the music itself and the personalities involved in its creation and performance. In an exploration of complementary and contrasting sound worlds, harmony and text and vocal forces, VOCES8 creates a sonic tapestry weaving together individual voices and music to create this performance. The ensemble enters into a dialogue with music, seeking to present its vision whilst allowing the listener freedom for individual engagement.í
I found this disc by turns puzzling, frustrating and mesmerising. It contains some of the finest choral singing I have heard in a long time. Some of the performances are simply spellbinding. Then other items just donít work as well for me; they fail to capitalise on the groupís strengths. Even then you still have to admire the technical tour de force of items like the Brahms - the brilliance of being able even to attempt this music. The pieces selected donít, for me, coalesce into a real programme, particularly when they are arranged in what feels to me to be a rather haphazard order. Or perhaps Iím missing something.
Robert Hugill
Puzzling, frustrating and mesmerising.