VOCES8 and VOCES8 Scholars: The Milton Abbey Concert

The activities of the VOCES8 Foundation are as diverse as its values are singular: to promote music education for all.  Alongside performances and recordings by VOCES8 and Apollo5, the Foundation’s flagship ensembles, there is an annual programme of workshops and masterclasses at the VOCES8 Centre at St Anne & St Agnes Church in the City of London; partnerships with Music Hubs, schools and communities; a ‘Digital Academy’ – an online resource for choir leaders, singers, teachers and schools; a digital sheet music publishing house which offers new music from composers associated with the VOCES8 Foundation.  Then, there is the VOCES8 Scholars Programme, established in 2015, which is a sort of vocal apprenticeship programme providing training – in performance, recording and workshop leading – for eight young singers in the UK and twelve in the US.

All these elements come together during VOCES8’s week-long annual International Festival and Summer School, held at Milton Abbey in Dorset, where vocal and orchestral programmes held in association with world-class visiting artists run alongside workshops and musical events in which amateur singers of all ages are invited to work and perform with VOCES8.  Scholars have the opportunity to present public performances, both as their own ensemble and alongside VOCES8, and receive coaching from the members of VOCES8 and other visiting artists.  The programme culminates with an opportunity for the Scholars to showcase the results of their work throughout the year, with concert at the end of the Festival, performing alongside VOCES8.

The core of this year’s concert was Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir.  Around the movements of the Mass were woven polychoral Renaissance motets by Victoria, Palestrina and Gabrieli, as well as a new work by Joel Clarkson, who was a prize winner in the VOCES8 2023 Composition Competition (another VOCES8 innovation).  Looking at the programme in advance of the performance, I was reminded, in a way, of the Renaissance practice of pairing a Mass and motet, the latter providing the material which is developed in the movements of the Mass – often described as a ‘parody Mass’, since both motet and mass would be based on the same chant antiphon.  Although there were not the same direct musical links here, there seemed to be an invitation to consider the textual, musical and liturgical relationships between diverse sacred polychoral works composed over a span of five hundred years.

Initially screened from the audience seated in the main part of the Abbey, VOCES8 and the VOCES8 Scholars – with a few additional, familiar faces including former VOCES8 soprano Eleonore Cockerham and Foundation Choir members baritone Greg Skidmore and bass Jimmy Holliday – began the performance with the Ave Maria à 8 by Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611).  All the usual VOCES8 ingredients were here: perfect intonation, seamless blend, hypnotic overlapping of the two choral groups, subtle nuances.  But, it was interesting to see the way that conductor Barnaby Smith sought a really penetrating reading of the text, building through the complex intertwinings, “et benedictus fructus ventris tui” (blessed is the fruit of your womb), and contrasting this floridity with reverence, “Sancta Maria”, and tenderness, “Regina caeli”, then pushing forward with the change to triple metre, emphasising the urgency of the imploration, “ora pro nobis peccatoribus” (pray for us sinners).  The breadth and span of the close was uplifting.

Soprano Andrea Haines initiated the chant, Ave Maris Stella, during which the ensemble would process to the space in front of the altar.  Smith let the female voices – a crystalline unison, beautifully phrased – sing instinctively as an ensemble, only gesturing to bring in the men’s low pedal-hum, stretching upwards from which the melody could flower.  Needless to say, the timing of the procession was perfect, the singers arriving in the places to declaim the final Amen, with gravity and dignity. 

Giovanni Gabrieli’s Jubilate Deo is rather a war horse of the polychoral repertoire.  It’s surprising that Smith, introducing the work to the ‘listeners at home’, didn’t acknowledge that there is considerable evidence in the Venetian sources that in performances of such works, published in Gabrieli’s two Symphoniae sacrae, the voices would have been doubled by instruments – the title pages of the both the 1597 and posthumous 1615 publications bear the description, ‘tam vocibus, quam instrumentis’.   Smith set a breakneck pace: surely those cornetts and sackbuts would have wanted a bit more room to make their punch felt?  The brisk tempo also didn’t allow for metrical complexities – some textual phrases are set in a binary metre, others are ternary – to make their impact felt; and, at times the sopranos felt a bit pushed – not shrill exactly, but not very relaxed.

Smith did acknowledge that Gabrieli’s Omnes Gentes á 16 would probably have been ‘sung and played’ – in this voices-only rendition, Andrea Haines has to walk the cornetto’s descant high wire and bass Jimmy Holliday rumbles at the bottom with his “amazing low Cs” – but not that the Venetian archives indicate that these cori spezzati works were performed by dividing the voices into solo and ripieno groups.  Here, it was ‘full on’, nothing held back – and it was thrilling, as Smith made the metrical alternations dance, the ternary “Allelulia”s exploding with joy.  “O clap your hands together, all ye people: O sing unto God with the voice of melody.”  Absolutely.

Palestrina’s Stabat Mater, a work composed for Eastertide and originally sung exclusively by the Sistine Chapel Choir during Holy Week, provided some repose, Smith moving to one side and joining the singers in their luscious chordal richness – offering just a little direction, VOCES8-style, to shape the architecture and point the consonances and dissonances which paint the image of the grieving Mother as she stands at the foot of the Cross.  I’m not sure if the singers were getting a little tired by this point, but the intonation wasn’t always quite so sure, and the melodic and textual phrases didn’t feel quite so seamless, though the prevailing spiritual sentiments were affectingly communicated.

Jupiter Shall Emerge by Joel Clarkson (b. 1987) has many of the hallmarks of a VOCES8 ‘classic’, including soupy harmonies – lots of clusters, sevenths and ninths.  But, it also makes use of interesting contrapuntal gestures and textural variety, as well as captivating movement of the inner voices, which give import to the imploring of the protagonist of Walt Whitman’s ‘On the Beach at Night’ (1855) to “Weep not … be patient, watch again another night”, when the Pleiades would emerge from behind the clouds – silvery, golden, immortal.  The harmonies of the comforting homophonic close were rapturous.

Frank Martin’s Mass for double choir has become a staple of the twentieth-century choral repertoire but for a long time the Swiss composer’s intensely personal expression of his Calvinist faith lay locked away, unheard and unknown.  Begun in 1922, completed in 1926, it did not receive its first performance until 1963, Martin having declared the Mass to be ‘a matter entirely between God and myself’.  

It’s a complex and demanding work, particularly with regard to balancing the different moods while retaining the coherence of the whole.  There’s none of the flamboyance of the Catholic Messiaen here, rather restraint and introspection – an expression of a deeply personal, intimate relationship with God.  But, there are episodes of flowing vitality, and also of foreboding.  VOCES8’s reliable intonation served them well in those tricky opening pages of the Kyrie, where the altos’ chant-like melody unfolds, diffusing like ink in water, first reaching the sopranos and then spreading through the two full choirs.  Those descending meanderings can be a pitch death-trap, but the pitfalls were avoided here.  A little more attack on the consonant, to balance the purity of the vowels, might have been welcome, but Smith certainly let the singers off the leash with the first fortissimo cry, the ‘K’ of “Kyrie” now crisp and vigorous, triggering urgency.  Then, there was rhythmic joy in the full ensemble’s buoyant homophonic praises.

Though the Gloria begins quietly, there was a sort of breathless excitement in those pinpoint repetitions, an accumulating anticipation, building to radiance, “Glória in excélsis Deo”.  And, Smith retained an airy texture, never letting the music slip into weighty solemnity, despite the forthrightness of the proclamations, “Laudámus te, benedícimus te” (We praise you, we bless you).  I like the way he tapered the dynamics and asked for varied articulation accordingly.  There was austerity, too, in the pointed utterances above low pedal notes: “qui tollis peccáta mundi” (you take away the sins of the world).

The Credo was forthright, lots of vocal vigour here; but the movement felt overly urgent, pushing forward a bit too relentlessly. The “Et incarnatus” didn’t quite have enough time and space to settle into its quietude.  “Et resurrexit” was brilliantly exciting though, the counterpoint fizzing and uplifting.  The final “Amen” must have lifted the audience in Milton Abbey off their seats.  But there was more to come: the ecstatic “Osanna” of the Sanctus must have literally raised the Abbey roof.  The Agnus Dei seems to me to come close to the spiritual intensity of Bach, and Smith found some of the great master’s majesty here, in the plainsong-like melodies, the vertical surges and ascents, the sense of a divine light illuminating the song.  Solemnity, serenity and passion were blended, and brought to a healing conclusion in the final statement of peace, “Dona nobis pacem”.

Claire Seymour

VOCES8 and VOCES8 Scholars

Tomás Luis de Victoria – Ave Maria á 8; Ave Maris Stella (Chant); Frank Martin – Mass for Double Choir (Kyrie, Gloria); Giovanni Gabrieli – Jubilate Deo; Frank Martin – Mass for Double Choir (Credo, Sanctus and Benedictus); Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina – Stabat Mater; Joel Clarkson (b. 1987) – Jupiter Shall Emerge (world premiere); Frank Martin –Mass for Double Choir (Agnes Dei); Giovanni Gabrieli – Omnes Gentes á 16

Milton Abbey, Dorset; 4th August 2023 (broadcast 19th August 2023).