rec. 2019, Challow Park Studios, Wantage, UK
Texts and English translations included SOMM RECORDINGSSOMMCD0608 [65:40]
I first encountered the five-voice female singing group, Papagena through the first album they released with SOMM, The Darkest Midnight (review). Subsequently, I heard them live when they gave a late-evening concert as part of the 2019 Three Choirs Festival (review). In that Three Choirs recital they included several numbers from The Darkest Midnight and, on receiving this follow-up CD, I was glad to find several other pieces that they sang at Gloucester have been included here.
The exclamation ‘Hush! has many connotations and uses, ranging from reassurance to a command for silence. In his very helpful notes, Michael Quinn explains the concept behind the programme, telling us that this particular musical programme “is a part meditation on, part celebration of the word that eloquently explores it in all its prismatic usage, from comfort, reassurance and peace to mild, occasionally rueful admonition.” To call the programme wide-ranging would be to risk understatement. The composers range from the ninth century to the present day and, by my count, Papagena perform in no less than 11 languages, many of them exotic, as well as English. The choice of music is eclectic and the moods explored are no less diverse. The programme offers some arresting contrasts but also a satisfying number of musical connections.
One such example occurs midway through the programme when we hear Ek Rizis by the ninth-century composer, Kassia. She was previously unknown to me but I learned from the notes that this Constantinople-born musician was the first female composer of the Occident, preceding the much more celebrated Hildegard of Bingen by some two centuries. How perceptive, then, of Papagena to follow the Kassia piece not with a piece of music written by Hildegard but by one of her texts – which she herself set to music, I think – in a contemporary setting by John Duggan. Kassia’s piece, which is for three voices, is the first of two Stichera for Vespers of the Feast of St Simeon the Stylite. The music is spare in texture and, particularly as presented here, has a timeless quality. John Duggan’s O Viridissima Virga achieves the not inconsiderable feat of keeping faith with the ambience of Hildegard’s own music but, at the same time, setting the words to music that is of our own time, the composer sticking to his own path.
Another connection has Tchaikovsky’s familiar Legend (The Crown of Roses) followed by a traditional Romanian ballad, Sub O Salcie, which tells of Mary grieving at the foot of the cross. This Romanian piece is arranged for three voices; it’s very simple and affecting. Geoffrey Weaver’s arrangement of the Tchaikovsky was made specially for Papagena. He preserves the four-part writing but, of course, we now hear exclusively high voices. I miss the sonority of the bass line in the familiar SATB version. However, Michael Quinn is right to draw attention to “the quiet, contemplative succour” of Weaver’s arrangement; it works well, I think.
Later in the programme, two settings of English folk songs are paired and they couldn’t be more different. Holst’s four-part setting of The Swallow Leaves her Nest is stylistically familiar. On the other hand, Winnie Brückner’s Swingle-style arrangement of The Snow it Melts the Soonest is much more unusual.
The very first album that Papagena released – no longer available, I believe - was entitled Nuns and Roses, surely a witty nod to the 1980s American group Guns N’Roses. On this new album they present Suzzie Vango’s own arrangement of a celebrated Guns N’Roses song, Sweet Child O’Mine. Vango’s excellent, bouncy arrangement for five a cappella voices is very different to the heavy-beat original with its driving guitar riffs (yes, I have listened to the original for the purposes of comparison!) but Papagena prove the truth of the old adage that there’s more than one way to skin a cat; both arrangement and performance work really well. I think it’s clever programming to follow that song with the aching suspensions of Alessandro Scarlatti’s Cor Mio. Papagena bring out the exquisite melancholy of Scarlatti’s music in a highly eloquent performance.
Let me just pick out a few personal highlights from the programme. The opening item, Moonset is by the Canadian composer, Don Macdonald who has set a poem by a fellow Canadian, Emily Pauline Johnson (1861-1913). The music is often chant-like and thereby Macdonald creates a mysterious atmosphere. I find his harmonies fragile and intriguing. I loved the piece. And I loved, too, the piece that follows it. Shen Khar Venakhi has medieval words set to a traditional Georgian chant, beautifully arranged by Sarah Tenant-Flowers. The words are in praise of the Virgin Mary and, if memory serves me correctly, this gently radiant piece was sung by the group as the encore at their Three Choirs Festival concert last year. Similar in beauty is Nikolai Kedrov’s setting of the Lord’s prayer, Otche Nash. Like the Tchaikovsky Legend, we hear it transposed up for high voices and in this very poised, beautiful performance it works extremely well.
As well as singing some intensely beautiful music Papagena demonstrate their sense of fun in this programme. Perhaps nowhere is this better demonstrated than in Jim Clements’ hilarious setting of part of Caitlin Moran’s The Woman’s ‘If’. Moran’s original is a feminist take on Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem and she does it in a very funny but very telling fashion. I experienced Papagena performing this number in Gloucester and it was great! Here, inevitably, one misses the visual aspect but the performance will still get you smiling – and, I hope, agreeing with the sentiments.
The final item on the disc is rather special: the group’s own arrangement of Gavin Davenport’s setting of Jess Arrowsmith’s Changeling’s Lullaby. Michael Quinn describes this piece, very fairly, as “wistful and brittle”. Papagena’s performance is tender and lovely, and with it they fashion a beautiful ending to their programme.
Throughout the nineteen tracks on this CD Papagena sing with flawless tuning and ensemble. But these performances are about much more than studied accuracy; that can only get you so far. The singing on this disc evidences sensitivity, wit, no little feeling and, at times, exuberant joy. It’s a carefully and imaginatively crafted programme, superbly executed. Furthermore, since I reviewed their last disc I’ve had the chance to see and hear the group perform live. There is, of course, a great deal of difference between a studio recording and a live performance but I can definitely say that anyone purchasing this disc will get a very good idea of what the group sounds like when stimulated by an audience.
The recording was engineered by Will Biggs and produced by Adrian Peacock. They’ve done an excellent job of presenting the performances in clear, pleasing sound. SOMM’s booklet, containing texts, translations and very good notes by Michael Quinn, is up to the label’s habitual high standard.
This is another winner from Papagena. More, please!
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