A Guardian Angel: VOCES8 open their Live from London – Christmas festival

Sixteen concerts over five weeks, 280 artists, a ‘Young Singers’ spotlight featuring singers from the UK, US Germany and Singapore, and six newly commissioned works.  VOCES8’s Live from London – Christmas festival is characteristically ambitious, innovative and creatively imaginative.  In the weeks leading up to Christmas Eve, groups such as The Aeolians, The Tallis Scholars, Apollo 5, amarcord, Anúna, and I Fagiolini will perform at the VOCES8 Centre, other venues in London and also in international venues.  Then, from Christmas Day, Paul McCreesh’s Gabrieli Consort & Players will present the six cantatas which form Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in six concerts at St John’s Smith Square.

To open their festival, VOCES8 and violinist Rachel Podger presented A Guardian Angel, a programme which interweaves Baroque works for unaccompanied violin with a cappella vocal pieces, both traditional and modern, and which I enjoyed at Kings Place in March 2018.  The underlying conceit of the programme – heard here in a special ‘Advent edition’ – is the dialogue, and eventual union, between heaven and earth: the violin, an angel, issues a ‘call’ to the mortal singers, who respond as they move ever closer towards heaven.  Antiphon for the Angels by Owain Park which ends the programme represents the transition from mortal to angelic realms.

VOCES8’s stagecraft is always immaculate and well-considered.  A meditative mood was conjured by candles fluttering in the subduedly lit, but brightly decorated, St Anne and St Agnes church.  VOCES8 formed a half-circle around a central cluster of flames, illuminated by their flickering rays; initially, Podger was placed apart, in her own halo of light, but later she moved to form the centre stone of the singer’s arch (countertenor Christopher Wardle having returned to perform with his former colleagues in the absence of the self-isolating Katie Jeffries-Harris).

The melody of Michael Praetorius’ Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen’ broke the silence.  Podger’s melody seemed like the lone chorister’s voice which so often opens Advent services with the unaccompanied first verse of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’.  Here, it was not a congregation but the singers of VOCES8 who were invited to participate, and they sang with wonderful evenness of line, balance of ensemble and flawless intonation.  They chose just two verses, the first from Praetorius’ original setting and the fourth, which was added in the 19th century.  The meticulousness of the group’s attention to the text was noteworthy; in the final verse, slight breaths following ‘O Jesu’ and ‘O Gott’ highlighted the earnestness of the appeals, and the enjambed verse lines were smoothly delivered, evoking the intensity of the worshippers’ devotion, an intensity that was further deepened by the accentuated suspensions in the final cadence.

Biber’s Passacaglia in G minor for solo violin (Guardian Angel) followed.  I have heard Podger perform this work many times but I never tire of admiring the remarkable relaxation of her left-hand fingers, and the fluency and strength of her bowing action; the discerning way in which she sustains the listener’s engagement with the descending four-note descent on which the work is built; the contrasting articulations that she employs to give each variation striking character; the sumptuous tone and textual clarity of her double-stopping.  If anything, the acoustic of St Anne and St Agnes seemed to make the theatre of the work even more magnificent and Podger’s tone more shining and resonant.  I loved the way she moved effortlessly between textures, and how expansion was naturally followed by retreat; the way high spirits gave way to gravity, drama to contemplation. After a final glorification of harmony and texture, Podger receded, paring back to the simple passacaglia theme and concluding with a tierce de Picardie that spread like a ray of light across the violin’s four strings, the final delicate E-string gleam disappearing into ethereal silence.

Podger’s angelic violin had issued a challenge to the mortal voices.  They replied with two settings of the Annunciation.  An anonymous medieval Angelus ad Virginem’ depicting Gabriel’s descent to Mary was jubilant, the four upper voices in fluent unison above a rich fifths-based drone below.  Following a light, harmonised passage for four voices, the re-entry of the unison full ensemble was celebratory.  In contrast, Hieronymus Praetorius’ two-part motet, ‘Angelus ad Pastores Ait’ dramatizes the exchanges between the massed angels and the shepherd.  Rising phrases originating in the lowest voices opened the narrative, “Angelus ad pastores ait” (And the angel said to the shepherds); polyphony generated wonder at the glad tidings and growing excitement – “quia natus est vobis hodie Salvator mundi” (For the Saviour of the world has been born to you today); then came tenderness: “Parvulus filius hodie natus est nobis” (a tiny son is born for us today).  The joyous Alleluias spread out like a fan of many colours.

Nicola Matteis was one of the 17th-century European violinists who brought the emerging Italian style to England.  Matteis arrived in England around 1670 and immediately won critical admiration, the writer-diarist John Evelyn describing him as ‘that stupendious Violin Signor Nichalao … whom certainly never mortal man Exceeded on that Instrument’.  His long bow, his bow hold, and his posture were remarked upon by Roger North, and his facility with double-stops and divisions were admired.  In 1676 Matteis published the first two Parts of his Ayrs; third and fourth Parts followed in 1685.  Podger performed the ‘Passaggio rotto – fantasia’, from the second Part, demonstrating with virtuosic ease the skilful slurring and improvisatory flourishes that heralded the new Italian style. 

VOCES8 answered with a traditional German advent carol, ‘Maria durch ein Dornwald ging’, which tells of the pregnant Mary’s visit to Elizabeth.  The music embodies the poetic metaphor.  At first Mary walks through thorny terrain: the sombre low voices of the first stanza are countered by the brighter upper voices, but the latter’s plea, “Kyrie eleison”, seems similarly anxious and uncertain.  Then, harmony brings warmth and growth.  Here, the ensemble “Kyrie” of the third stanza shone and lingered.  Some fantastic dissonances unwound in the closing cadence intimating the roses that Mary witnessed unfolding through the thorns – “Da haben die Dornen Rosen getragen! Jesus und Maria” – the floral blossoming representative of the child that blossoms in Mary’s womb. 

‘Denn er hat seinen Engeln befohlen über dir’, that well-known chorus from Mendelssohn’s Elijah, was similarly reassuring.  God tells Elijah to venture into the wilderness where, fearing for his safety, he is comforted by the angels who look over him and “keep thee in all thy ways” (“sie dich behüten auf allen deinen Wegen”).  The upper parts were notable for their careful phrasing and precise dynamics, while the lower voices had a lovely soothing warmth.  In the final bars, bass Jonathan Pacey’s wonderfully focused, sustained low G brought about stability and unity; the pause before the final ensemble phrase suggested certainty and faith, and the cadence resolved itself with slow assurance, the purity of the chord sweetened by the major third degree, tenderly interjected by the highest tenor voice.

Alec Roth’s Men and Angels is a setting of George Herbert’s poem ‘Antiphon II’, which presents a dialogue between the celestial hosts and man on earth.  Roth had made a new arrangement for this performance, and it was Podger’s violin that initiated the conversation.  It began in a subdued tone but gained in energy, as the violin climbed upwards through the vocal lines, and ended in a mood of grave but rapt spirituality.  The writing is largely homophonic in texture and VOCES8 used the text well to create lively back-and-forths between the two groups.

Before each of the next three vocal compositions, Podger prefaced a movement from Bach’s Partita for flute in A minor BWV 1013, transposed to G minor to take advantage of the violin’s sonorous open strings.  The Allemande was firm and sure, with a real punch to the low notes from which the chains of scalic- and arpeggio-figures ensue; the Corrente was gracefully nimble; and the Bourrée anglaise had real bite and spirit.

Britten was only sixteen when he wrote A Hymn to the Virgin but he was already demonstrating the penchant for medieval texts that he would retain throughout his life.  Once again, there was antiphonal dialogue, with Latin responses to the English text.  VOCES8 sang from memory, their beautifully balanced and blended tone creating a calm solemnity.  The ensemble included Jonathan Dove’s The Three Kings on their most recent disc, After Silence, and it was good to have an opportunity to hear them perform it live; the harmonic tinges and pinches generated great energy, as did the textural restlessness, and the interweaving of the refrain, “O balow, balow la lay”, into Dorothy L Sayers’ account of the presentation of myrrh to the infant Christ by the magi.  The final gift brought about a homophonic enrichening, “Both his hands were full of gold”, which culminated in a golden shower of sound, “Many a gaud and glittering toy”, which ricocheted around the church, culminating in the elated declaration, “O balow, balow la lay,/ Gifts for a baby King, O”.

Owain Park’s Antiphon for the Angels brought light and darkness into divine unity.  The choral-like certainty of St Ambrose’s prayer, ‘Behold the radiant sun departs’, offered comfort, before Park’s musical imagery led voice and violin on a journey towards transfiguration.  The ‘spirited light’ and ‘secret darkness’ of Hildegard von Bingen’s text were embodied in then dialectic between the upper voices’ energised motifs and the low oscillations of the lower voices, the latter creating a shimmer of sound that formed a sonic-visual haze.  Podger’s fleeting fragments and improvisatory flights entered the choral debate and sought to ascend towards heaven, towards the light.  The violin’s fluttering, mimicking the men’s tremulous ostinato, drew in the singers: “O gloriosissimi lux vivens angeli”.  At the climax, a quiet, pure violin harmonic evinced angelic strength and welcomed the mortals into the divine, a rich harmonic expansion celebrating the union of celestial and earthly realms, before the violin’s high, sustained song dissolved into transcendence.

I may be mistaken, but I think that Podger was startled by the sudden loud applause and cheers that erupted from VOCES8’s appreciative technical team.  It seemed to intrude upon that transcendent silence rather too brutally, for the violinist flinched and closed her eyes.  It would indeed have been fitting to pause, the music silenced now on earth, but surely sonorous in the heavens.  But, we moved onwards … with an encore, Bach/Gounod’s Ave Maria arranged by Artistic Director Barnaby Smith for voices and violin.  Above Podger’s perpetual movement – evenly and cleanly articulated, but always expressive – the voices entered, first the two sopranos, then the countertenors, and finally the lower voices, in long unfolding phrases embodying faith and certainty.

Claire Seymour

A Guardian Angel: Rachel Podger (violin) and VOCES8 [Andrea Haines & Eleonore Cockerham (soprano), Christopher Wardle & Barnaby Smith (countertenor), Euan Williamson & Blake Morgan (tenor), Chris Moore (baritone), Jonathan Pacey (bass)]

M. Praetorius – ‘Es ist ein Ros’ entsprunge’; Biber – Passacaglia in G minor for solo violin, Guardian Angel; Anon – ‘Angelus ad Virginem’ (arr. VOCES8); H. Praetorius – ‘Angelus ad Pastores Ait’; Nicola Matteis – Passaggio rotto (from Other Ayrs, Preludes, Allemandes, Sarabands); Traditional – ‘Maria durch ein Dornwald ging’ (arr. Stefan Claas); Mendelssohn – ‘Denn er hat seinen Engeln befohlen über dir’ (from Elijah); Alec Roth – Men and Angels; Bach – Partita for flute in A minor, BWV 1013 (I. Allemande, II. Corrente, IV. Bourrée anglaise); Britten – A Hymn to the Virgin; Dove – The Three Kings; Owain Park – Antiphon for the Angels.

VOCES8 Centre, London (livestream); Tuesday 2nd December 2020.

Above: VOCES8 and Rachel-Podger (c) Libby Percival