VOCES8 and O/Modernt bring holy minimalism to Wigmore Hall

This was the third performance by VOCES8 that I’d attended or viewed in two weeks, which confirms that their virtuosity is matched by their versatility, and that they have a lot of stamina.  In the preceding days, they’d followed Jesuit missionaries down the Amazon and kicked off the festive season with a cracker of musical gifts: now they were joining O/Modernt Chamber Orchestra and hangdrum player Manu Delago for a contemplative evening of mystical minimalism, exploring connections between old and new, East and West.

Framing the programme was a double helping of ‘O Mother Of God, here I stand’, from John Tavener’s The Veil of the Temple (1992, rev. 2020) – the work that the late composer regarded as the supreme achievement of his oeuvre.  This All-Night Vigil – a service of the Eastern Orthodox Church which takes place on the night before Easter – comprises eight ‘cycles’ praising God in various languages and by means of various musical cultures – aiming to heal divisions by emphasizing the eternal glory of God.  Though not strictly liturgical in form, it was first performed in the context of an actual service (in entirety it lasts over seven hours).  Tavener described The Veil as ‘a journey towards God; and if you see God as the centre, as you must, then it is a journey from the periphery to God’.  And, herein lies a problem.  For, while the name O/Modernt is both Swedish for ‘un/modern’ and an allusion to the mystical chant ‘OM’ – the substratum of creative sound which sustains the universe – Wigmore Hall, though undeniably ‘sacred’ for music and lieder lovers and performers, is not a spiritual space.

With the string players of O/Modernt positioned on the Wigmore Hall platform, VOCES8 delivered their opening declaration, “Mother of God, here I stand now praying”, ‘off-stage’ and processed into the Hall from the rear, pausing in the haloed aisle before joining their musical colleagues.  It felt staged rather than spiritual to me: maybe it’s just that I didn’t and don’t ‘get’ the ‘vibe’, but it’s not the first time I’ve found Wigmore Hall the wrong venue for music which springs so sincerely from religious – in its broadest sense – sentiment.  That said, the musical intensity that was immediately established was compelling, though the dimensions of the performance could not summon the work’s essential magnificence.

Rachmaninov is perhaps the author of one of the most well-known all-night vigils, and VOCES8’s performance of ‘Bogoroditse Devo’ (O Virgin Mother of God) from the composer’s Op.37 Vespers was more persuasive.  In this kind of blended, balanced choral singing, VOCES8 are peerless.  Seamless phrasing, perfectly co-ordinated ebbs and flows, and an assured appreciation of the dimensions of the whole: the artistry is breath-taking at times.  The ensemble of just eight singers managed to convey the experience of something nobly uplifting and glorious.

In a symmetrically designed programme, Arvo Pärt was placed either side of the interval.  The composer’s 2001 Nunc Dimittis was notable for the evident communication between the singers, and the sense of movement and light within the unified vocal sound.  Andrea Haines’ purity and effortless ‘presence’ were, as ever, remarkable, though at times I found the sopranos’ tuning less than settled, especially in the forte passages and as the register rose.  But, the group inevitably relished the lush harmonies and the occasional peaks of neo-Romantic fervour, effectively balancing emotional energy with spiritual calm.  Later, we heard the composer’s Silouan’s Song (1991) – a musical expression of a sacred text, the monk Silouan’s epithet, ‘My soul yearns after the Lord and I seek him in tears’ – in which the instrumentalists of O/Modernt breathed as one, the strings’ assuming a vocal quality as the open harmonies evoked a simple humility and holiness.  The bow strokes were initially hushed and even, but built onwards with powerful strength and vigour.

Notwithstanding my adolescent adulation of Pärt, his music now seems to me a hermetically sealed zone.  Much more ‘organic’ was Lonely Angel (2006) by the Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks.  Subtitled ‘Meditation for violin and string orchestra’, it was composed for Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica, and is a reworking of the final movement of Vasks’ fourth string quartet (commissioned by the Kronos Quartet in 1999).  Again, the connection with vocal utterance was palpable, and founder/leader Hugo Ticciati’s song was heaven-born and infinite.  The bow technique was stunning, the tone as the melody rose ever higher so strong and sweet.  The collective strings’ chorale imbued a human dimension, as did the lithe, dynamic cello countermelodies.  Though the title suggests a human and spiritual fragility, the music had an untroubled serenity that was truly comforting, especially in times so troubled.  It’s hard to imagine a more eloquent rendition.

Hangdrum virtuoso-composer Manu Delago added his sonic spiritualism to the programme mix.  In Wandering Around (2011), Delago assumed a shamanic presence, becoming one with his instrument as the rhythms took shape and form, and the gamelan-like timbres hovered.  The repetition-principle was furthered in Circadian (2019), the 24-note pattern of which mirrors our 24-hour daily cycle, while allowing for individual variation of the ‘norm’.  Ravel-like colours and textures characterised the opening – myriad flutters, splashes and flickers – but after a while I tired of the incessant patterns and loops, the music seeming to mimic a Morricone film score without the context.  Delago has a fan club, and they were very present and vocal.  I guess this is just not my cup of tea: beautiful thought the effects can be – and virtuosic and creative as Delago undoubtedly is – the music seems to me superficially coloristic.  A bit like those Pärt-by-numbers works (by both the composer and others) that go through the motions.

Within all these visions and angels was embedded Vivaldi’s Magnificat.  It felt as if it had wandered in without an invitation, especially as it followed segue the opening rendition of Tavener’s ‘Mother of God’.  It was technically assured, of course, but I’m yet to be convinced that this repertoire is really VOCES8’s metier.  They are at their best ‘as one’, and when they assume solo roles within the vocal timbre.  Also, their impeccable intonation is founded on listening, knowledge and experience.  The same is true for the string players; but strings and voices tune and attune in different ways.  There were moments to admire but, again, the context seemed to work against the work’s impact.  Barnaby Smith’s lovely ‘Quia respexit’ had all the theatricality of a Handelian hero.  Indeed, there was much drama – some wonderful sinking chromatic episodes over dark pedals – but Vivaldi sat oddly alongside the holy minimalism.

To close, Delago joined with O/Modernt and VOCES8 in a reprise of Tavener’s ‘Mother of God’.  Again, I’m probably missing something here but, while it was neatly complementary, I’m not sure the hangdrum added much.  The Wigmore Hall audience clearly disagreed with me, and their vociferous appreciation would not let the performers leave the platform.  I left the Hall with Ticciati’s beautiful violin-angel in my head and in my heart.

Claire Seymour

VOCES8, Manu Delago (hangdrum), O/Modernt (Hugo Ticciati, director)

Tavener – ‘Mother of God, here I stand’ (5 Anthems from The Veil of the Temple); Vivaldi – Magnificat RV610; Manu Delago – Wandering Around; Pärt – Nunc Dimittis, Silouan’s Song; Vasks – Lonely Angel; Rachmaninov – ‘Bogoroditse Devo’ (All-Night Vigil Op.37); Delago – Circadian; Tavener – ‘Mother of God, here I stand’.

Wigmore Hall, London; Wednesday 8th December 2021.

ABOVE: Hugo Ticciati