Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Draw On, Sweet Night review – a little night music from VOCES8

22 May 2024

The popular ensemble present a potpourri of pieces from Renaissance England to 1950s Las Vegas and beyond.


VOCES8 (Photo: Andy Staples)

There is always a polished precision to VOCES8’s performances, and Wednesday evening’s concert at Cadogan Hall was no exception; each of the short(ish) works in the programme was given with an exacting attention to dynamic, tempo and blend, the group, as ever, presenting a faultlessly airbrushed product to an enthusiastic audience, each short set of pieces given a relaxed and informative introduction.

The theme was ‘night’: Wilbye’s Elizabethan madrigal provided the title for the concert, and Sullivan’s The Long Day Closes, Carroll Coates’ London by Night, as well as settings of the Compline hymns and canticles (versions of Te lucis ante terminum by Tallis and Alec Roth; Holst’s Nunc dimittis), displayed obvious connections. More metaphorically apposite were pieces around death: Schütz’ Selig sind die Toten; the six madrigals of Monteverdi’s Lagrima d’amante… (a mourning sestina written after the untimely death of the composer’s pupil Caterina Martinelli); Gibbons’ Drop, Drop Slow Tears (a musical representation of the Pietà). Mention of the moon in Giovanni Croce’s Buccinate in neomenia tuba and the mash-up of Come Fly With Me/Fly Me To The Moon gave a nod to the nocturne, but the connections of Pärt’s The Deer’s Cry (a setting of a verse from St Patrick’s Breastplate), Rheinberger’s Kyrie (Mass in E-flat), Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson’s Heyr himna smiður (an Icelandic hymn to the creator), Kevin Allen’s O sacrum convivium and Nat King Cole’s Straighten Up and Fly Right were rather more tenuous.

As might be expected from the theme, there was a deal of very quiet singing, and here, the group excelled. The piano unison verses of the Tallis prepared us for this, and the mellow, hushed statements of the Allen and Sigurbjörnsson were beautifully controlled, but for the closing lines of the Gibbons the group summoned a very special kind of near-silence, the tone completely blended, the dynamic judged to the decibel. The Sullivan, an old warhorse of a piece guaranteed to engender many a damp eye, was given all the melodramatic shifts in volume it needed.

“There is always a polished precision to VOCES8’s performances, and Wednesday evening’s concert at Cadogan Hall was no exception…”

Where the group really stands out is in the material that made their name: arrangements of popular 20th century music; and here they did not disappoint. Alexander L’Estrange’s arrangement of Come Fly With Me (to the Moon) was slick and nuanced, its cool style delivered with oodles of communication, similarly Jim Clements’ arrangement of Straighten Up And Fly Right. The close harmonies of Gene Puerling’s treatment of London By Night need real exactitude in pitching for them to work, and VOCES8, as ever, delivered in spades.

One of my grumbles in past reviews of VOCES8 has been that their sound for ‘classical’ works is perhaps just a little too overpackaged, with a sort of Oxbridge college purity reigning supreme such that the production style tends to remain constant no matter whether the piece is from the 1500s or the 1800s. On Wednesday, though, this seemed to have receded. For sure, occasionally the soprano tone was so ‘pure’ (the Rheinberger being a case in point) that it felt almost electronically generated, and the consonants in some of the faster passages (the busy double-choir polyphony of the Croce, for example) were a touch overemphasised (it sounded, occasionally, like a peppy typist at work), but by and large, there was some attention to period ‘feel’ and the timbral contrast of the same text for Tallis and Roth was evident.

Which brings us to the Monteverdi. The composer’s madrigals require a lot of attention to the flexibility of texture, dynamic and speed if they are to succeed in their subtle word painting (which is usually about sex and death – in the case of these six, mostly about the latter). The group (or, at least, the five members who sang these) deliberately adopted a tone with more colour to it for this set, and by and large it worked well to deliver all of the above. The opening of the third madrigal was appropriately strident, and the contrasts between this stridency and a warmer tone in the fourth were well managed; the repetitions of the last line in the fifth madrigal were magical, and the calm stillness of the envoi equally so. That the pieces are in Italian certainly helped damp those occasional ejective consonants, and the group’s pitching accuracy made neat work of Monteverdi’s episodes of gnarly harmony. Blend, here, though, wasn’t always what it might have been, particularly in the upper two parts. Mixing male and female altos works with larger numbers, but one of each in a group of five (in which the lower three parts are perfectly homogenous) adds perhaps a little too much timbral variety to the ensemble, and absolute perfection might have been achieved with two female voices at the top.

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