‘Where All Roses Go’: Apollo5, Live from London

Our progress through the centuries was more or less chronological and began
at the Elizabethan court. The programme notes explained that the repertoire
chosen reflected ‘love in its ‘many different manifestations’: ‘life and
loss; beauty and mortality; brave romance and fragility in rejection; the
steadfast devotion of a mother’s love (heightened by the awareness of
inevitable separation); and in the Christian narrative the Virgin Mary and
the eventual ultimate sacrifice.’

I’m not sure how the two motets from Byrd’s 1589 Cantiones Sacrae,
with their non-liturgical texts alluding to the persecution and penitence
of Byrd’s fellow Roman Catholics in Protestant England, fit into this
narrative, but, singing from memory, Apollo5 summoned an appropriate
urgency in the opening phrases of ‘Vigilate’ (“Watch ye”), making the
counterpoint lithe and strong. These motets were just as likely to have
been sung in domestic settings, with a single voice to a part, as by full
choirs during religious services, so the characterful interplay of the
individual voices that we heard here was apt. The contratenor part pushed
tenor Oli Martin-Smith a little high at times, and the lower lying soprano
motifs did not always cut through the dense texture, but bass Greg Link’s
sure foundations bound the whole neatly together. The texts were clearly
enunciated, too, with the sentiments of each phrase communicated through
dynamics and colour. Perhaps the sudden forte for the cock-crow
(“an gallicantu”) after the descending hush of “an media nocte” (in the
middle of the night) was a trifle too emphatic, but the homophonic
declaration, “omnibus dico” (I say to you all), and subsequent final
warning, was commanding and persuasive.

‘Ne irascaris Domine’ was a soothing appeal, with emphasis on the lyrical
expansiveness of Byrd’s linear lines (I found the tempo a touch too
leisurely), but the singers did not neglect the harmonic nuances: the
sudden interjection of the minor mode with the command, “Ecce” (Behold),
was pointed with a surge of vigour and volume, and the false relation that
highlights “iniquitas” was made more portentous by the reduced texture and
softening of the tone. I’m not certain, but I think that the individual
lines were occasionally reassigned, presumably to accommodate voice ranges
and create particular effects; the overall result was harmonious and full
of feeling.

There were continental motets from the period, too, in the form of
Francisco Guerrero’s ‘Veni Domine’ and Josquin des Prez’s four-part ‘Gaude
virgo’, the latter allowing tenor Josh Cooter to relax for a few minutes
and enjoy the vigorous and buoyant performance of his fellow singers. The
tempo adopted for ‘Gaude virgo’ was brisk, rhythms were animated and
consonants crisp. The paired vocal ‘sparring’ was full of energy, though
occasionally I found Martin-Smith’s tenor a little too emphatic, particular
when rising to the top or when initiating the final “Alleluia”. The blend
of voices wasn’t always as liquid and silken, nor the phrasing as refined,
as some other a cappella ensembles who specialise in this repertoire, but
Apollo5 used the character of their individual voices to bring about the
expressive development such as the compositional methods are designed to
achieve, and to nurture the devotional fervour of the music; the intonation
was immaculate.

Thomas Tallis’s psalm-setting, ‘Why fum’th in fight’, is probably most
familiar as the ‘theme’ which inspired Vaughan Williams’s ‘Tallis’ Fantasia
for string orchestra. I wondered if the five voices would be able to create
the sustained fluency of the congregation hymn; the answer was, yes.
Apollo5 demonstrated a natural feeling for the fluid homophonic phrases,
singing with lyrical expressiveness and a lovely fresh tone. We heard only
one verse of the hymn, the last note of which was held and transformed into
the opening of ‘Lost Innocence’ by Paul Smith, who is also the chief
executive of VOCES8.

It’s a brave composer who would set text drawn from W.H. Auden’s ‘Hymn to
St Cecilia’, inevitably inviting comparison with Britten, but Smith
embraces the challenge by incorporating references to Britten, Vaughan
Williams and Tallis within his own largely homophonous and ‘hymn-like’
score, in which lines and phrases of the text are repeated and stepwise
movements of the synchronised vocal lines produce passing, gentle
dissonances – in the manner of Eric Whitacre – which resolve into bare and
open chords, creating a reverential mood. Smith sets only the last of
Auden’s three stanzas together with the final three lines of the preceding
stanza. This choice of starting point not only breaks a semantic unit but
also removes the context for Auden’s words, which transform the emotions of
the first stanza, urging man to quell the inner struggle between natural
passion and the civilised reason which is a result of his ‘fallen’ state,
and instead to embrace the loss of innocence. There can be no ‘art’ without
the artist’s suffering: “O wear your tribulation like a rose.” In Smith’s
setting the emphasis falls on the children who are urged to “weep away the
stain” of their lost innocence. Apollo5 clearly found much to respond to in
Smith’s composition. A well-focused bass solo brought about a central
climax, with the truth that “what has been may never be again”, and
subsequently each singer took their turn to delineate Auden’s elusive
images, culminating in Clare Stewart’s tender shaping of Auden’s final

‘Lost Innocence’ took us into the 21st century, and thereafter
we stayed in recent and present times. Eric Whitacre’s website describes
‘This Marriage’ (2004), which sets text by Rumi, as a ‘a small and simple
gift to my former wife on the occasion of our seventh wedding anniversary’.
It was Martin-Smith’s turn to take a short break now, as the other four
voices euphoniously sang Whitacre’s characteristically gloopy harmonies.
Taylor Scott Davis’s ‘Music, When Soft Voices Die’ is more texturally
diverse and employs exploratory harmonies to convey the tactile richness of
Shelley’s imagery – vibrating voices, pungent scents and fragile rose
petals. It was beautifully sung, the combined voices both soothing and
luxuriant. The rose imagery was sustained in Michael McGlynn’s ‘Where all
Roses Go’, which featured a lovely, easeful solo from Josh Cooter above an
expressive carpet of vocalised undulating harmonies.

Just when the mood seemed to be turning a little too sombre, Apollo5
lightened the ambience by switching track and venturing into various
popular repertoires of the 20th century. (As so often in these
terrific Live from London recitals, the 18th and 19 th centuries were disregarded.) ‘These Foolish Things’ had a
richness which belied the number of voices and, like Elton John’s ‘Your
Song’, offered individual singers the opportunity to shine while the
ensemble demonstrated the breadth of their colour palette and their
rhythmic animation. The Beatles’ ‘Eleanor Rigby’ was a little hesitant
initially but soon got into its stride; Blake Morgan’s interesting
arrangement certainly poses a few vocal challenges, which Apollo5
negotiated confidently and stylishly. Martin-Smith sang Yahoo’s ‘Only You’
with gentle expressiveness, accompanied by a light ‘instrumental’
accompaniment which was given some slight percussive assistance from
Cooter. An encore, Jerome Kern’s ‘The Way You Look Tonight’, closed the
performance in swinging style.

On 19th September, The Sixteen perform
Music For Reflection,
Live from London

Claire Seymour

Apollo 5: Penelope Appleyard (soprano), Clare Stewart (soprano), Josh
Cooter (tenor), Oli Martin-Smith (tenor), Greg Link (bass)

William Byrd – ‘Vigilate’, ‘Ne irascaris Domine’; Francisco Guerrero –
‘Veni Domine’; Josquin des Prez – ‘Gaude Virgo’; Thomas Tallis – Psalm 2,
’Third Tune’ from Archbishop Parker’s Psalter; Paul Smith (for Apollo5) –
‘Lost Innocence’; Eric Whitacre – ‘This Marriage’; Taylor Scott Davis (for
Apollo5) – ‘When Soft Voices Die’; Michael McGlynn – ‘Where all Roses Go’;
Jack Strachey & Harry Link (arr. Jim Clements) – ‘These Foolish
Things’; Elton John (arr. Matt Greenwood for Apollo5) – ‘Your Song’; The
Beatles (arr. Blake Morgan for Apollo5) – ‘Eleanor Rigby’; Vince Clark
(arr. VOCES8) – ‘Only You’.

Streamed live from the VOCES8 Centre, St Anne and St Agnes, City of London;
Saturday 12th September 2020.

product_title=Apollo5: Where All Roses Go, Live from London
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Apollo5