Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Voces8 @ St John’s Smith Square, London

11 April 2017

St John's Smith Square

St John’s Smith Square (Photo: Matthew Andrews)

Tuesday evening saw Voces8 present a programme of music based on the church’s year; or possibly the seasons; or possibly the journey of the soul – the overarching theme of the concert (and its relevance to SJSS’s Holy Week season) being a little confused.

The group has a reasonably lengthy catalogue of recordings now, spanning early music and a cappella arrangements of Bond themes; it seems, however, that the live product is sometimes less impressive than the recorded one. What doesn’t come across in their recordings is their somewhat buttoned-up tone – an ascetic purity with overworked college-chapel plosive consonants which brought to mind The King’s Singers with added women. This timbre complemented the more earnest items in the programme – Tallis’s O Nata Lux, Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin (for which the neat trick of having the semi-chorus face the back window worked well), Stefan Claas’s arrangement of Maria durch ein Dornwald ging – and the purity of sound portrayed exquisitely the angels in Mendelssohn’s Denn er hat seinen Engeln  from Elijah.

A warmer sound and much more engagement with the audience and with each other, however, should have been brought to bear on Jonathan Dove’s more emotionally vibrant and conversational The Passing of the Year. Dove’s setting of seven poems of the seasons was originally written with a much larger choir in mind, and Voces8’s one-to-a-part version was an interesting experiment that demonstrated both gains and losses. The dreamy Ah, Sun-flower! benefited from the interweaving of slightly detached individual voices, and the effect of solo-voiced notes ‘tickling each other’ (to use Dove’s words) in Hot sun, cool fire and Adieu! farewell earth’s bliss! was enjoyable. The blowsier aspects of the work, however, were lost entirely: the magnificently lyric tenor announcement “… till clust’ring Summer …” in The narrow bud opens her beauties to the sun raised no hairs on arms; and the clamour of voices straining against ‘the mad romping din’ of the piano’s New-Years-Eve chimes in Ring out, wild bells was politely muffled (the composer himself giving an excellent – if understandably restrained – account of the challenging piano part).

For Alexander Levine’s two settings of prayers by St Augustine – Magnus est Domine and Invocabo Deum (the latter being a world première) – the group found a more communicative tone, and their involvement with the composer and his creations showed in their animation and in the expressive delivery of these charming works, that are half Catholic and half Orthodox in sensibility: composites of rhythmic chanting and slower passages sprinkled with twinkling note clusters – the hybrid offspring of Duruflé and Pärt, perhaps.

The second half also contained two pieces by Bach, for which Voces8 were joined by their regular instrumental partners, Les Inventions, directed by Patrick Ayrton. For the first of these, the short motet Komm, Jesu, Komm, the group retreated to their earlier thinner sound, and the piece became all consonants with little in the way of warmth. In comparison, the seven-movement cantata Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich was given a much more interactive delivery, in which the contrasting emotional forces of each movement were accorded effective weight – the final chaconne being particularly radiant. The instrumentalists complemented the singing with an admirable sureness (and full marks must go to Felix Knecht’s virtuosic cello playing in the trio), although the lack of a bassoon obbligato left a little bit of a hole in the texture.

The concert will be broadcast on Radio 3 on 21 April, and doubtless the sound engineers will have been able to work their dynamic magic on the more etiolated sections.

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Voces8 @ St John’s Smith Square, London