Silver Bells: VOCES8 on Christmas Eve

In 2021, VOCES8 invited us to pull a Christmas Cracker.  This year they encouraged us to relish the quiet sparkle of Silver Bells.  Their Christmas Eve live stream, from the ensemble’s home at St Anne and St Agnes in the City of London, presented a characteristic mix of ancient and modern, and many of VOCES8’s staple favourites – but, there was new repertoire, too, and it was the latter that proved most compelling, delineating as it did both the contemplative and the celebratory.

The 400th anniversary of William Byrd’s death has been oft marked this year, and VOCES8 began their recital with the Advent introit, Rorate Caeli, squeezing in a tribute to the Elizabethan composer before the year closes.  The vocal discipline – no warming up required here – was as impressive as ever.  Individual voices vivified the opening polyphony – which was lithe, transparent, and brisk of pace – while the coherence of the whole was sustained.  The shift to homophony was seamless, “Benedixisti, Domine, terram tuam” (Lord, thou hast blessed thy land), and there were some lovely light trio textures.  With “Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto” the vivid, joyful polyphony of the opening returned.

Hieronymus Praetorius’s two-part motet, Angelus ad Pastores Ait, depicts the visitation of the angels to the shepherds after the birth of Christ.  There was considerable grandeur and drama here, the lines surging with vigour.  But, there was tenderness, and a sense of wonder, too: “Parvulus filius hodie natus est nobis, et vocabitur Deus fortis” (A tiny son is born to us today, and he shall be called Mighty God).  The homophonic Alleluias were jubilantly punchy, the bass reaching downwards in the final cadence with solidity and assurance.

Old and new met at times.  Melissa Dunphy’s O Oriens reached further back into the past, based as it is on Gregorian chant.  It was wonderful to hear the chant melody spread through the voices, in linear and vertical directions, and varied transformations.  The ensemble and unison intonation at the opening was spot on; then the chant spoke through chordal clusters, the whole gradually expanding by means of intensity of colour, dynamic and weight.  The appeal, “veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis” (Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death), was almost fierce, but there was a return to timeless serenity at the close.

John Rutter’s arrangement of Es ist ein Ros entsprungen was comfortingly comtemplative, the melody flowing in the lower voices, the upper voices swelling like consonant clouds of angelic hosts, Nick Deutsch’s oboe descant providing both piquancy and pathos.  The long, drawn-out threads of sweetness were consolingly.  Of A Rose by Cecilia McDowall sets a 14th-century text and is characterised by sprung rhythms, shifting metres – with phrases seemingly cut short and tumbling with glee into the next – and contrapuntal freedom and elasticity.  Here the Allelulia brought the movement to a poised point of rest, the bass steady, underpinning the ensemble with pedals or a stepwise rise: there were tensions but never conflict.

Nick Deutsch

We also heard McDowall’s Lo! He Slumbers, a setting of Isaac Watts’s ‘Cradle Hymn’ which lingers in those chromatic, slushy harmonies and ambiguous verse-end suspensions that VOCES8 relish and exploit so beautifully.  The coaxing “Sleep, my babe” was a soporific slide of chromatic slippages; the sopranos climbed high in the declaration, “Lo, He slumbers in His manger”, creating a rapt air.  The collective register remained high and bright for the reassuring hopefulness of “Mayst thou live to know and fear Him, Trust and love Him all thy days”, and the whole was sealed with a sensitively shaped tierce de Picardie: “See His face, and sing His praise.”

Robert Lucas Pearsall’s arrangement of In Dulci Jubilo was rich and warm.  Molly Noon, Katie Jeffries-Harris and Euan Williamson brought forth the quiet pathos of the third stanza, but the bright descant of the final verse – angels singing, bells a-ringing – prevailed.  Jesus Christ the Apple Tree,as arranged by Elizabeth Poston, was sensitively phrased, the legato seamless.  The penultimate verse – “I’m weary with my former toil/ Here I will sit and rest awhile:/ Under the shadow I will be/ Of Jesus Christ the apple tree” – was beautifully enriched by the bass line, while the ensemble judged and controlled the injection of intensity in the final verse superbly.  Frohlocket, ihr Völker auf Erden by Felix Mendelssohn (the first of the Sechs Sprüche Op.79) can sometimes be rather sombre and staid – but not here!  VOCES8’s sprightly rendition culminated in a glowing “Halleluja!” fanfare.

The contemporary repertoire more than matched its historic Advent antecedents for expressivity and communicative impact.  Reena Esmail’s Winter Breviary is a triptych of carols which sets new texts by poet Rebecca Gayle Howell.  The sequence depicts a lone pilgrim’s walk through the woods on solstice night, as they search for a hope which finally comes with the dawn, in the third carol, ‘The Unexpected Early Hour’.  “Praise be” was a vibrant carillon, contrasting with the calm homophony, “Winter is, Winter ends, So the true bird calls”.  Unisons spread into rainbows of separating voices, dissonant chord clusters acting as a spring board for movement that conjured the vigour of In Dulci Jubilo.

A Tender Shoot by Kerensa Briggs presents another setting, in English translation, of Es ist ein Ros entsprungen.  The homophonic lines overlapped at start and close, like gentle waves.  The harmonies dug deep at appropriate moments: “Turning our darkness into light” dissonantly pointed to the darkness; “Our God of endless might” presented a surprising discord before the final phrase slipped into soft, consonant resolution.  A celebratory festive spirit was conjured by Tamsin Jones’s Noel: Verbum Caro Factum Est, the Noel refrains florid, the leaping bass octaves agile.  Individual voices came to the fore in the light, tripping rhythms and counterpoint.  There was an effervescent mood as the English text was pulled around playfully and joyfully.  

Molly Noon

It was good, too, to hear Luke Wenceslas Mayernik’s The Lamb, which won VOCES8’s 2023 composition competition (there were over 600 entries).  Molly Noon’s soprano descant was beautifully pure and precise, and the sumptuous ensemble textures were as gentle and soft as the downy fleece of a tiny lamb.  Tenor Blake Morgan’s arrangement of the Scandinavian folk melody Mitt Hjerte Alltid Vanker is an extended work, the solemnity of which was finely conveyed by Katie Jeffries-Harris’s solo and by the gravity of the bass line.

Some of the harmonies of Morgan’s arrangement seemed to hint at what was to come, though: a fun-pulsing – but no less professional and immaculate – concluding sequence that we’ve heard before from VOCES8 (Silver Bells, Let it Snow and Jim Clements’ brillaint arrangement of Santa Claus is Coming to Town).  If you weren’t feeling the Christmas spirit at the start of the live stream, it would have been hard to deny the toe-tapping cheeriness of the season by the close.

LIVE from London Christmas 2023 is available until 7 January.

Claire Seymour

VOCES8: Andrea Haines (soprano), Molly Noon (soprano), Katie Jeffries-Harris (alto); Barnaby Smith (Artistic Director and countertenor), Blake Morgan (tenor), Euan Williamson (tenor), Christopher Moore (baritone); Dominic Carver (bass); Nick Deutsch (oboe)

William Byrd (1543-1623) – Rorate Caeli; Reena Esmail (b. 1983) – Winter Breviary: No. 3 The Unexpected Early Hour; O Oriens (Chant) Melissa Dunphy (b. 1980) – O Oriens; Trad. arr. John Rutter (b. 1945) – Es ist ein Ros entsprungen; Hieronymus Praetorius (1560-1629) – Angelus ad Pastores Ait  Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) – Frohlocket, ihr Völker auf Erden; Cecilia McDowall (b. 1951) – Lo! He Slumbers; Kerensa Briggs (b. 1991) – A Tender Shoot; Elizabeth Poston (1905-1987) – Jesus Christ the Apple Tree; Trad. arr. Robert Lucas Pearsall (1795-1856) – In Dulci Jubilo; Cecilia McDowall – Of A Rose; Tamsin Jones (b. 1972) – Noel: Verbum Caro Factum Est; Luke Wenceslas Mayernik (b. 1981) –The Lamb; Trad. arr. Blake Morgan (b. 1991) – Mitt Hjerte Alltid Vanker; Jay Livingston (1915-2001) & Ray Evans (1915-2007), arr. Blake Morgan – Silver Bells; Jule Styne (1905-1994), arr. Jim Clements (b. 1983) – Let It Snow; John Frederick Coots (1897-1985) & Haven Gillespie (1888-1975), arr. Jim Clements – Santa Claus is Coming to Town.

St Anne and St Agnes, City of London; Sunday 23rd December (live stream).