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After Silence
Mary Bevan (soprano), Sam Dressel (tenor), Nick Deutsch (oboe), Alexander Hamilton (organ)
Academy of Ancient Music/ Barnaby Smith
rec. Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge; St George’s Church, Chesterton; St. John the Evangelist, Islington; The VOCES8 Centre. Dates not given
Texts & translations included
VOCES8 RECORDS VCM129 [62:47 + 65:28]

This two-CD set gathers together four digital-only albums which were released individually between November 2019 and June 2020. These are, in fact, regarded as chapters, as Paul Williamson explains in the booklet. The collective title for the project comes from Aldous Huxley’s celebrated assertion: ‘After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music’. Huxley’s essay, The Rest is Silence is reproduced in the comprehensive documentation. This album celebrates the fifteenth anniversary of VOCES8 and it gives us a flavour of the breadth of their repertoire, ranging from Monteverdi and Bach – they are joined by the Academy of Ancient Music for the Bach cantata – right the way up to the present day. The latter category of repertoire includes first recordings of two pieces, one by Jonathan Dove and one by Mårten Jansson

The Remembrance segment of the programme is concerned with death, loss and return to earth. Gibbons’ Drop, Drop, Slow Tears offers an immediate demonstration of the qualities of VOCES8. The music is immaculately sung, all the voices impeccably balanced and blended. The singers bring a gentle, unanimous solemnity to the piece. They are just as impressive in Arvo Pärt’s The Deer’s Cry. The performance is beautifully calibrated, rising eventually to a plaintive climax. Bring Us, O Lord God by Sir William Harris brings the programme’s first challenge to my preconceptions. This exquisite double-choir motet is a piece which I love, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard it sung one voice to a part. Having listened a couple of times, I still miss the richer texture of a slightly larger ensemble. On the other hand, I found it very interesting to hear eight expert voices sustaining Harris’s wonderful lines with such purity and clarity. Parry’s six-part There is an Old Belief is another piece I’m accustomed to hearing from a slightly larger ensemble. This is a masterly fusion of words and music. As in the Harris, I approved of the clarity with which Parry’s music is rendered but rather missed the richness of texture to which I’m used. That said, this slimmed-down choral sound conveys the serenity of Parry’s setting and VOCES8 really put across the intense poignancy of the music in the closing pages, beginning at ‘Eternal be the sleep…’ At the end of this section of the programme I’m unsure of the wisdom of setting Fauré’s sublime Pie Jesu for a cappella choir. In this version the orchestral/organ accompaniment is shared amongst the voices while one soprano sings, most beautifully, Fauré’s delectable solo line. I think I would enjoy hearing this once in concert but how much I’ll return to it in a recording I’m unsure. I have no reservations whatsoever about the rendition of Byrd’s paired motets. VOCES8 bring an ideal intimacy to Byrd’s miraculous, subversive music. I found this performance very moving; I was spellbound.

The second section of the programme is Devotion, which concerns “the flames of love, sacred and secular”. The section is dominated by Monteverdi’s set of six madrigals, Lagrime d'amante al sepolcro dell'amata. I have to be honest and say that this is music with which I’ve never really felt moved to engage. However, I can certainly appreciate the expert performance by VOCES8. They offer singing which is often full-throated and ardent. However, where Monteverdi requires the singers to adopt a more inward approach they rise just as successfully to that challenge. The concluding ‘Dunque, amate reliquie’ offers a case in point. The setting begins with singing of hushed sadness before a brief venture into more passionate expression. Then the music reverts to the quiet sadness again, bring the collection to a moving close. Before the Monteverdi come three modern pieces. Eric Whitacre’s A Boy and a Girl is sung with exemplary control. In this slow-moving music there’s no hiding place and none is needed by these exceptionally disciplined singers. Like the Whitacre, I’ve heard Jonathan Dove’s The Three Kings before, but always sung by a larger group. Here the music benefits from the great focus and clarity which VOCES8 bring to Dove’s harmonies, conveying the intensity of the writing most successfully. I’m not sure I’ve previously heard Philip Stopford’s Lully, Lulla, Lullay but I thought it a very effective setting and here it’s brought to life.

The Redemption section features pieces which are “seeking renewal and the breath of life”. It gets off to the best possible start with Chesnokov’s Spaséñiye, sodélal. This is rapt devotional music and I’d challenge anyone to find a performance that surpasses the beauty of this one by VOCES8. I also enjoyed greatly their account of Ēriks Ešenvalds’ The Long Road. We hear this in a version adapted for VOCES8 by Christopher Morris, one of the group’s basses. I’ve heard the original several times and I’d say this adaptation is entirely successful. The music is intrinsically simple – at least on the surface – and it’s very lovely. VOCES8 give it a highly committed performance. I wish I could be so complimentary about the version of Mahler’s sublime song, ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ but I can’t. This is an adaptation by Blake Morgan, a tenor with VOCES8, of the choral arrangement by the German composer and conductor, Clytus Gottwald (b.1925). I’ve heard Gottwald’s original arrangement before and I’ve never liked it; I like it no more in this version. In essence, what we have here is Mahler’s solo vocal line (sung by Mary Bevan) against which the choir sings Mahler’s accompaniment. The plaintive cor anglais part is retained but it’s expanded to form a quasi-obbligato. I’m afraid I feel that the results do Mahler no favours at all. My chief objection is that the solo line doesn’t stand out as it should because it’s just a primus inter pares among the other vocal parts. Though the artists give it their best shot this is a complete misfire amongst this musical company. It’s a relief to return to a proper choral piece in the shape of Stephen Paulus’s The Road Home. This piece is disarmingly simple of utterance and it makes an excellent effect here.

To conclude the section, we hear Bach’s short, early Cantata Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150. For this, VOCES8 are joined by a small instrumental ensemble formed by members of the Academy of Ancient Music. The number of players is right in scale with the choral forces; there are just four string players, a bassoon, theorbo and organ. As a result, the performance has a really intimate feel to it, which suits the music to perfection; indeed, Bach probably had forces no bigger than this in Arnstadt where it is thought he composed the cantata. VOCES8 give us a super account of the opening chorus which mixes plaintive longing for God’s help with much more energetic episodes; in the lively passagework the singers present the music with excellent definition. They are equally impressive in the closing chorus. All the other movements are very well done but I especially warmed to Mary Bevan’s account of the aria ‘Doch bin und bleibe ich vergnügt’. Her singing is every bit as accomplished as I’ve come to expect from this fine artist and the ring in her voice suits the music to a tee.

Finally, we arrive at Elemental, a section of the programme in which, in Paul Williamson’s words, “the ebb and flow of nature meets the search for purity”. I’d not previously heard Earth Song by the American composer, Frank Ticheli (b 1958). Indeed, I’m not sure I’ve heard any of his music, but I liked this piece. The music is simple and direct in expression and has a gentle beauty. I was put in mind of the music of Eric Whitacre. VOCES8 give Earth Song a performance that is perfectly poised. With Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia we are on much more familiar ground. This is yet another piece that is usually sung by a larger ensemble but VOCES8’s smaller-scale rendition brings its own rewards, not least in terms of revealing inner detail. This is an impressive performance. This final section of the programme includes two works written specially for VOCES8 and here receiving their first recordings. Jonathan Dove’s Vertue is a setting of lines by George Herbert. Like all the music that I’ve encountered by this communicative composer, the piece is attractive. The music is slow-paced and interestingly harmonised. I think it’s a fine response to the words. The Swedish composer, Mårten Jansson (b 1965) turned to the American poet, Charles Anthony Silvestri for the text of An Elemental Elegy. The notes tell us that Jansson is primarily noted as a composer of liturgical music and there’s certainly that feel to this piece, which is a gentle celebration of the environment. However, the mood becomes much more robust when reference is made to man-made damage to the natural world. However, this anger soon dissipates and the piece ends calmly, celebrating nature in an optimistic vein. I liked this piece. By chance – or is it? – Eric Whitacre also used words by Silvestri in Sleep. In fact, as I was reminded by the notes, Silvestri came to Whitacre’s rescue. He had composed a setting of a poem by Robert Frost without realising that the text was still in copyright. Unable to secure permission for his setting, Whitacre involved Silvestri who not only provided him with a suitable text but, moreover, one that fitted the existing music like a glove. I’ve heard a number of recordings of this calm and appealing piece before but the present one is as fine as I’ve heard. Though their respective musical worlds are poles apart, Whitacre’s tranquil setting complements very nicely the piece by Orlando Gibbons with which VOCES8 began their musical journey.

This is a very fine album. I like the wide range of repertoire and I admire the skill with which the programme has been put together. It’s been fascinating and rewarding to experience a number of familiar pieces in smaller-scale performances than those to which I’ve been accustomed. The performances themselves are flawless; the singing is cultured and evidences fine engagement with the music. There’s also a genuine sense of ensemble: these singers work as a team.

Production values are very high. The recordings were made in no less than four venues and though no recording dates are specified I imagine that the sessions were spread over a period of time. Some of the engineering was done by Barnaby Smith – how does he manage to combine acting as engineer with singing as an alto in VOCES8 and directing the performances? The other sessions were in the hands of David Hinitt. Both of these engineers, working with the highly experienced producer Adrian Peacock, have set down exemplary and consistent recordings. The discs are housed in a hardback book-style case along with the comprehensive documentation. Paul Williamson’s notes are excellent and the only very slight grumble is that the texts for a couple of the works – the Bach cantata and the Britten – are in miniscule font, though everything else is easy to read.

This is an enjoyable and distinguished celebration of VOCES8’s first fifteen years of singing.

John Quinn

Orlando Gibbons Drop, Drop, Slow Tears
Arvo Pärt The Deer’s Cry (2007)
Sir William Harris Bring Us, O Lord God (1959)
William Byrd Ne Irascaris Domine
William Byrd Civitas Sancti Tui
Sir Hubert Parry There is nn Old Belief (1907 – from Songs of Farewell (1916))
Gabriel Fauré arr. Barnaby Smith Pie Jesu
Eric Whitacre A Boy and a Girl (2002)
Jonathan Dove The Three Kings (2000)
Philip Stopford Lully, Lulla, Lullay (2008)
Claudio Monteverdi Lagrime d'amante al sepolcro dell'amata (1610)
I. Incenerite spoglie
II. Ditelo, o fiumi
III. Dara la notte
IV. Ma te raccoglie, o ninfa
V. O chiome d'or
VI. Dunque, amate reliquie
Johann Sebastian Bach Jesus bleibet meine Freude (Cantata – Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147 (1723))
Pavel Chesnokov Spaséñiye, sodélal (1912)
Ēriks Ešenvalds The Long Road
Gustav Mahler Rückert Lieder: No. 4, ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’
Stephen Paulus The Road Home
Johann Sebastian Bach Cantata - Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150
Frank Ticheli Earth Song (2005)
Jonathan Dove Vertue (2019 -World Premiere)
Benjamin Britten Hymn to St Cecilia (1942)
Mårten Jansson An Elemental Elegy (2019 - World Premiere)
Eric Whitacre Sleep (1999)

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