Choral Dances: VOCES8, Live from London

Where to start but with the eponymous ‘Choral Dances’ from Benjamin
Britten’s opera, Gloriana – composed in homage to the newly
crowned Elizabeth II in 1953, via a glance back to her historic namesake
and predecessor. The six Choral Dances are sung in the Act II masque scene
by the people of Norwich, to honour their royal guest. Following the
opera’s negative critical reception, Britten excised them from future
performances though he did publish the dances in the a cappella
form that we heard here, and in a version including tenor and harp.

They are no easy sing: though largely diatonic, the intervallic leaps are
wide and often angular, rhythms are complex, and the counterpoint is
complicated. Although they were starting ‘cold’ as it were, VOCES8 were
characteristically accurate and the intonation was well-centred. ‘Time’
burst into celebratory life, jubilant and vibrant, but more might have been
made of the text: yes, the interplay of voices is intricate but lines such
as “Time is at his apogee!” seem to demand a deliberate, even hyperbolic,
approach to declamation. (There were no texts printed in this week’s
digital programme.) The image of a “bearded ancient with a scythe” brought
a hush of reverence, and a perfectly tuned unison, from which harmonic
tones ricocheted, spread and rang, putting me in mind of the composer’s Hymn to Saint Cecilia. ‘Concord’ was beautiful: the gently
alternating chords blended exquisitely, the diatonic harmonies perfumed
with a lovely, archaic modality. The homophony aided textual clarity, and
the phrases breathed like a lullaby: the ensemble was good, but the start
of each phrase requires precise negotiation after each slight silence, and
though aware that VOCES8 aspire to well-rehearsed collective coordination,
I wondered – given that at this early stage of the concert and the singers
were likely to be still ‘settling in’ – whether director Barnaby Smith
might usefully have offered some discrete guiding gestures.

‘Time and Concord’ pitted male voices against female, springing forth with
elasticity and driving canonic energy, until the ensemble came together
with the unison hail, “Gloriana!” and the affectionate assurance that the
Queen “hath all our love!” Sopranos Andrea Haines and Eleonore Cockerham
were the ‘Country Girls’: the bare intervals, rapid interplay and unsettled
harmonies proved quite challenging, but if the tone was a little shrill
then I think that this is largely because this particular ‘dance’ is not
very conducive to a one-to-a-part texture. The TTBB grouping of ‘Rustics
and Fishermen’ was warmer but no less lithe: the chaps sang with a muscular
spring, and I loved the relaxed ‘sinking’ which followed the buoyant short
phrases. The final ‘Dance of Homage’ was a soothing conclusion.

Thomas Weelkes’ madrigal ‘As Vesta Was from Latmos Hill Descending’, which
was published in the 1601 collection The Triumphs of Oriana, was a
neat link back to the Elizabethan era proper. The rhythms danced blithely
and the six singers (SSATTB) used the homophonic phrase-beginnings to
effectively communicate the narrative which tells of the meeting on Latmos
Hill between the descending goddess, Vesta, and her nymphs and the
ascending Oriana and her shepherd: “Leaving their goddess all alone” the
nymphs “hasted thither”, to mingle with the shepherds and sing “mirthful
tunes”. The madrigal bloomed richly towards the close suggesting a joyful
union – musical and more – of these pastoral dwellers. Orlando di Lasso’s
‘Dessus le MarchÈ D’Arras’ (1584) also has a ‘cheeky’ text, describing the
arrival of a Spaniard in the bustling market of Arras and his ensuing offer
to pay any woman who accompanies him to his home. VOCES8 flew lightly
through the rapid patter, making much of the propelling
quaver-quaver-crotchet motif, and shifting meters fluently, though the
balance between the voices was not always satisfying, with the female
voices sounding a little too light.

Roxanna Panufnik is the ensemble’s current composer in residence and her
setting of text from the 136th Psalm, Love Endureth, made for a reflective contrast – though one that seemed rather
detached from the theme of ‘choral dances’. Telling of the
persecution and deliverance of the Israelites from the Egyptians, and
employing fragments of two ancient Sephardi chants, Love Endureth
has a distinctly Jewish colour: VOCES8’s performance was wonderfully
radiant, the swirling and oscillating harmonies, and piling close
intervals, merging to form a vibrant tonal shimmer. The singers really
relished the almost tactile grain of the harmonic hues.

Baritone Christopher Moore had introduced Panufnik’s work by inviting the
audience at home to listen out for the repeated return to F# major – the
“harmonic port in the storm” – which ultimately emerges triumphant, and
symbolises God’s enduring love. It seemed a rather odd ‘pointer’, for
anyone other than the musically educated and literate, and possessing
perfect pitch, especially since VOCES8 aim to perform diverse repertoire
ranging from esoteric classical compositions to the perennially popular.
Such eclecticism was indeed upheld in this programme. ‘Straighten Up and
Fly Right’ by Nat ‘King’ Cole rocked with an easy swing and gave tenor
Blake Morgan an opportunity to show off his talents in the field of jazz;
relaxed and debonair, he led the ensemble with silky voice and suave
confidence, while bass Jonathan Pacey did a pretty good impression of a
double bass riff. Irving Berlin’s ‘Cheek to Cheek’, made famous by Fred
Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat, was a collective
ballroom-sweep, Cockerham and Haines getting the toes tentatively tapping
in leisurely fashion, enabling us to appreciate the rich harmonies, before
the tempo snapped into shape and the vocal honours were shared around.

There were two arrangements by Alexander L’Estrange: of Van Morrison’s
‘Moondance’ and of ‘Sway’ by Luis Demetrio and Pablo Beltr·n Ruiz. In the
latter Pacey was a one-man rhythm section, a superb foundation for the
flexible vocal jiving above. As the singers mimed strumming strings and
shaking percussion, one could be forgiven for imagining that such
‘instruments’ really could be heard, that the violins were indeed soaring
exultantly. Two arrangements of modern folk-songs – ‘Underneath the Stars’
by Kate Rusby and Dougie MacLean’s ‘Caledonia’ (the latter was arranged by
Blake Morgan) – offered a softer palette. Again the ‘dance’ theme seemed to
slip away, but who would care when they could enjoy such lovely cushioning
harmonies, precise ensemble with small inner motifs occasionally
foregrounded, and, at the close of Rusby’s song, atmospheric stillness.
Educational materials relating to learning and singing ‘Caledonia’ will be
made available to schools and colleges via VOCES8’s recently launched
Digital Academy: aspiring young singers had much to admire here,
particularly the expansion from gentle vocalisation towards sonic, harmonic
and registral breadth – as if the energy which had been ‘resting’ within
the song had been gradually brought to live and set free.

‘Ain’t that a Kick in the Head’ by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn brought
things to a lively close, the two tenors, Morgan and Euan Williamson,
enjoying their affectionate rivalry and the rest of the ensemble happy to
let their hair down.

The next
Live from London concert will be presented by APOLLO5 on 12th September at 7pm.

Claire Seymour

VOCES8: Andrea Haines (soprano), Eleonore Cockerham (soprano), Katie
Jeffries-Harris (alto), Barnaby Smith (artistic director &
countertenor), Blake Morgan (tenor), Euan Williamson (tenor), Christopher
Moore (baritone), Jonathan Pacey (bass)

Benjamin Britten – Choral Dances from Gloriana; Nat ‘King’ Cole
(arr. Jim Clements) – ‘Straighten Up and Fly Right’; Irving Berlin (arr.
Jim Clements) ‘Cheek to Cheek’; Roxanna Panufnik – Love Endureth;
Thomas Weelkes – ‘As Vesta Was from Latmos Hill Descending’; Orlando di
Lasso – ‘Dessus le MarchÈ D’Arras’; Kate Rusby arr. Jim Clements –
‘Underneath the Stars’; Dougie MacLean (arr. Blake Morgan) – ‘Caledonia’;
Van Morrison (arr. Alexander L’Estrange) – ‘Moondance’; Luis Demetrio and
Pablo Beltr·n Ruiz (arr. Alexander L’Estrange) – ‘Sway’; Jimmy Van Heusen
and Sammy Cahn (arr. Jim Clements) – ‘Ain’t that a Kick in the Head’.

Live from London, broadcast from The VOCES8 Centre; Saturday 5th September 2020.

product_title=VOCES8, Live from LondonChoral Dances
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: VOCES8

Photo credit: Kaupo Kikkas