VOCES8’s concerts often resemble a Christmas tin of Quality Street chocolates – there’s something for everyone, and ‘favourites’ abound. But, the ensemble’s range – and ambition – is impressive; during this Live from London, Christmas festival alone, they have journeyed to from earthly realms to spiritual heights with ‘Guardian Angel’ violinist Rachel Podger and introduced six newly commissioned world premieres. And, they squeezed in a Messiah with the English Chamber Orchestra and soloists Carolyn Sampson, Iestyn Davies, Andrew Staples and Matthew Brook, at Cadogan Hall.
Their Winter Tales musical narrative began with the Annunciation, and J.S. Bach’s chorale harmonisation of the old German Christmas tune, ‘O Jesulein süß, o Jesulein mild’. Sweet and pure it certainly was, with fluidly moving inner voices and some sensitive nuances – the slightest rallentando in the penultimate phrase leading to an expectant pause, before the confirmation conclusion of the verse, for example. The harmonic variants were tuned with wonderful clarity and precision, and balance and ensemble were, as always, impeccable.
It was a pity that we only had two verses of the chorale, but also exciting to burst straight into ringing “Gloria”s that opened ‘Gabriel’s Message’ (arranged by Jim Clements). The angel’s message was communicated with telling directness, the verses swelling towards the declaration, “All generations laud and honour thee, Thy Son shall be Emmanuel”. Solos were passed between the singers: soprano Andrea Haines’ clear, composed opening, was taken up by Blake Morgan, whose tenor had a moving human quality and intensity of feeling, and then concluded by soprano Eleanore Cockerham’s strong conclusion, as beneath the ensemble’s gentle hum bloomed to a joyful “ah”. The suspension which twisted through the final “Gloria” was unresolved – both poignant and expectant.
The news carried by the Angel was fulfilled in two seventeenth-century Cantiones sacrae: ‘Puer natus in Bethlehem’ by Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654) and ‘Hodie Christus natus est’ by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621). Scheidt, who was a pupil of Sweelinck during the latter’s tenure as organist at the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, composed his musical celebration of the birth of Christ in 1620, when he was Kapellmeister in Halle. VOCES8 relished the strong unison pronouncements and muscular, elastic triple-time rhythms, and the melodic elaborations created a mood of restless, dynamic excitement, culminating in a thrilling “Allelliua”, the overlapping echoes a joyful carillon. ‘Hodie Christus natus est’ was written the preceding year. The imitative phrases built animatedly, the rhythms protean and kinaesthetic, forming an almost breathless web of cascading celebration and wonder. The ensemble’s communication and sense of ‘togetherness’ was a pleasure to see and hear.
The medieval Corpus Christi Carol is not actually a ‘carol’ in the modern sense of the word; it worships the Eucharistic ‘body of Christ’ and is sung all year round on festal days. Its perplexing lyrics are eerie and strange, telling of a falcon which “has borne my mate away”, and a hall in an orchard, “That was hanged with purple and pall”, and concluding with a vision of an unidentified knight, “His wounds bleeding day and night; Lully, lullay, lully, lullay!”, lying in a bed hung with gold and red, beside which kneels a weeping maiden alongside a stone, “The Body of Christ” written thereon.” The anonymous text’s mystery and mysticism are captured in Benjamin Britten’s setting, which was included in his first big choral work, A Boy Was Born (1933), and performed here in the arrangement which Harvey Brough made for the ensemble’s 2013 Eventide album. This is the sort of blended, luminous vocal haze which VOCES8 craft with such powerful beauty. Haines’ soprano weaved both within and above the complex eight-part texture, the layers of which accrued in intensity and meaning, then distilled and withdrew into silence.
The carol’s ‘Lully, Lulla, Lullay’ refrain echoed through Philip Stopford’s eponymous lullaby which tells the story of the Massacre of the Innocents from a mother’s perspective, as a lament for her lost child. Stopford’s harmonies are strangely sweet, the tenderness tinged with pathos; VOCES8 used the text most sensitively to give direction to the narrative.
The seventeenth century provided the musical climax of these Winter Tales, in the form of the second Magnficat of Hieronymous Praetorius (1560-1629). The Magnificat Quinti Toni of 1622 is daring and innovative, incorporating as it does polyphonic arrangements of the popular medieval tune ‘Joseph, lieber Joseph mein’ and ‘In dulci iubilo’, the two four-voice choirs thus slipping between German and Latin texts (a SSAT group representing the heavens, and earthly realms conjured by the lower ATBB quartet) and assuming varied colours and energy. The antiphon chants were sung with great eloquence by baritone Christopher Moore, flowering into the noble and elegant verses of the Magnificat. “Dispersit superbos mente cordis sui” (He hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart) conjured incredible excitement and the accumulating joy exploded in a glorious “Amen” which sculpted a sound-scape as awe-inspiring as the finest cathedral.
From such heights, VOCES8 descended to kneel at the cradle. Jonathan Rathbone’s ‘The Oxen’ does not, in its musical phrasing, always respect the poetic rhythms of Thomas Hardy’s nostalgic poem (which was published on Christmas Eve 1915 in The Times), and the jazz-tinged harmonies don’t seem to me to reflect the pessimism of lost beliefs and customs, and modern-day disillusionment, of which Hardy speaks. But, VOCES8 gave a careful and thoughtful performance, telling the story persuasively. Moore’s arrangement of the ‘Christmas Lullaby’ composed by his former teacher David Pickthall shone brightly, evoking resounding bells and glowing candles, and was sung with lightness, lift and ease. The concluding “Bybye, bybye, lulay” was soft and gentle, but never saccharine. I didn’t really warm to Thomas Elwin’s arrangement of the traditional carol ‘Silent Night’ which seems to me to lack the required dignity – the harmonies of “Sleep in heavenly peace!” have a ‘barbershop’ breeziness – but Eleonore Cockerham and tenor Euan Williamson sang the solo parts persuasively.
The Tales concluded with two string works rescored for voices by Jim Clements: Julie Styne’s ‘Let It Snow’ and John Coots and Haven Gillespie ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’. To return to my chocolate metaphor, if Praetorius’s Magnificat is my ‘Purple One’, then this sort of kitsch is my Orange Cream – but VOCES8 perform this lighter repertoire with impressive style and flair, and I’m sure that many at home enjoyed these jazzy jingles as much as the singers evidently did.
This performance concluded VOCES8’s own involvement with their Christmas Festival, but the musical treats continue, not least the Gabrieli Consort & Players’ performance of the six cantatas of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio between 25 December and 6 January, and A Russian Christmas as performed by the Russian vocal ensemble, Intrada, to celebrate the day of the Great Feast of Orthodox Christmas on 7 January. The latter will include Orthodox chant and premieres of 12-part Russian baroque music alongside well-known masterpieces by Dmitri Bortnianski, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Igor Stravinsky, performed in the magnificent Elokhovo Cathedral in Moscow.
VOCES8: Winter Tales
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)
Bach – ‘O Jesulein süß, o Jesulein mild’ BWV 493, Trad. (arr. Jim Clements) – ‘Gabriel’s Message’; Samuel Scheidt – ‘Puer natus in Bethlehem’, Sweelinck – ‘Hodie Christus natus est’, Britten (arr. Harvey Brough) – ‘Corpus Christi Carol’, Philip Stopford – ‘Lully, Lulla, Lullay’, Hieronymous Praetorius – Magnificat Quinti Toni incorporating ‘Joseph, Lieber Joseph Mein In Dulci Jubilo’, Jonathan Rathbone – ‘The Oxen’, David Pickthall (arr. Christopher Moore) – ‘Christmas Lullaby’, Trad. (arr. Thomas Elwin) – ‘Silent Night’, Julie Styne (arr. Jim Clements) – ‘Let It Snow’ John Coots & Haven Gillespie (arr. Jim Clements) –‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’.
St Anne and St Agnes, VOCES8 Centre, City of London (live stream); Wednesday 23rd December 2020.