This season’s lunchtime Proms at Cadogan Hall follow a chronological journey across 800 years of music. The first of these, on Monday, focused on the mediaeval and Renaissance periods in an a cappella concert featuring VOCES8. Works by European Renaissance composers provided the bulk of the programme, and a couple of earlier works by Hildegard of Bingen and Pérotin were balanced by contemporary pieces by Jonathan Dove and Alexia Sloane.
VOCES8 are a highly regarded vocal octet with a number of recordings to their name, and the works were given a slickly professional treatment, with blend and precision to the fore.
The opening almost-plainsong Spiritus sanctus vivificans by Hildegard was sung with angelic clarity and perfect blend by the two sopranos, such that it was difficult to tell that there were two voices. Pérotin’s Viderunt omnes was represented by a single word – ‘Viderunt’ – but such is Pérotin’s style,he draws this single word out for three minutes, forcing the voices into a series of jerky melismas on nasalised vowels.
The stock 16th-century pieces (Victoria’s Regina coeli, Lassus’ ‘Gloria’ from Missa Bell’Amfit’altera, Palestrina’s Magnificat primi toni and Byrd’s Sing joyfully) were all given textbook accounts, VOCES8 retaining a lightness of touch throughout, such that Victoria’s Alleluias bounced along in a precise, clipped fashion, the ‘Gloria patri’ of the Palestrina was lively, and the shifts of mood throughout the Lassus were brought to the fore in dynamic and attack. Gibbons’ double-choir O clap your hands provided a lightly energetic closing number.
Jonathan Dove’s Vadam et circuibo civitatem is a masterpiece of slow build, the music echoing the interlocutor’s search for her beloved, and VOCES8 captured this eloquently, allowing the waves of discord/concord in the opening passages to paint a picture of insecurity. The busyness on ‘per vicos’ was deftly handled, and the loud homophonic ‘Adiuro vos’ was a perfectly controlled climax.
Alexia Sloane’s Earthward (a Proms commission) is a secular piece – a hymn to the Earth. So many contemporary choral works follow the pattern of moving-homophony-followed-by-note-cluster, and, sadly, this was no exception (seemingly, complex counterpoint is out of fashion). The two- and three-voice introductory lines, though, were interesting for their dissonances, and the cluster chords contained not a few minor seconds, that set the beats ringing (especially when given VOCES8’s clear tones).
The downside to the concert, though, was that VOCES8 are a little too slick. There’s a Vaseline-lensed, gift-wrapped quality to it all. They have ‘a sound’ that sells, and they keep to this, such that period and compositional style are subsumed within a conformity of delivery. Yes, there are dynamic shifts and legato/marcato contrasts but the timbre never alters, and the vowels and consonants remain in the realms of ‘Oxbridge choral sound’. While this can suit the modern works, it leaves the Renaissance works too anodyne and devoid of period or style, such that each becomes a series of beautifully produced and blended notes without any feeling of context or emotion – lavishly packaged and pleasingly highbrow for the up-market listener (Beecham’s trenchant remark “the English may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes” might well be the driver here). Josquin’s Ave Maria, for example, could have done with a bit of Burgundian edge (perhaps borrowing some of the nasality from Pérotin, augmented by some quirkier vowels and consonants), but, along with Mouton’s Nesciens Mater it was given a polite collegiate airbrushing (and taken at a syrupy slow speed).