06 Sep 2020

Choral Dances: VOCES8, Live from London

With the Live from London digital vocal festival entering the second half of the series, the festival’s host, VOCES8, returned to their home at St Annes and St Agnes in the City of London to present a sequence of ‘Choral Dances’ - vocal music inspired by dance, embracing diverse genres from the Renaissance madrigal to swing jazz.

Where to start but with the eponymous ‘Choral Dances’ from Benjamin Britten’s opera, Gloriana - composed in homage to the newly crowned Elizabeth II in 1953, via a glance back to her historic namesake and predecessor. The six Choral Dances are sung in the Act II masque scene by the people of Norwich, to honour their royal guest. Following the opera’s negative critical reception, Britten excised them from future performances though he did publish the dances in the a cappella form that we heard here, and in a version including tenor and harp.

They are no easy sing: though largely diatonic, the intervallic leaps are wide and often angular, rhythms are complex, and the counterpoint is complicated. Although they were starting ‘cold’ as it were, VOCES8 were characteristically accurate and the intonation was well-centred. ‘Time’ burst into celebratory life, jubilant and vibrant, but more might have been made of the text: yes, the interplay of voices is intricate but lines such as “Time is at his apogee!” seem to demand a deliberate, even hyperbolic, approach to declamation. (There were no texts printed in this week’s digital programme.) The image of a “bearded ancient with a scythe” brought a hush of reverence, and a perfectly tuned unison, from which harmonic tones ricocheted, spread and rang, putting me in mind of the composer’s Hymn to Saint Cecilia. ‘Concord’ was beautiful: the gently alternating chords blended exquisitely, the diatonic harmonies perfumed with a lovely, archaic modality. The homophony aided textual clarity, and the phrases breathed like a lullaby: the ensemble was good, but the start of each phrase requires precise negotiation after each slight silence, and though aware that VOCES8 aspire to well-rehearsed collective coordination, I wondered - given that at this early stage of the concert and the singers were likely to be still ‘settling in’ - whether director Barnaby Smith might usefully have offered some discrete guiding gestures.

‘Time and Concord’ pitted male voices against female, springing forth with elasticity and driving canonic energy, until the ensemble came together with the unison hail, “Gloriana!” and the affectionate assurance that the Queen “hath all our love!” Sopranos Andrea Haines and Eleonore Cockerham were the ‘Country Girls’: the bare intervals, rapid interplay and unsettled harmonies proved quite challenging, but if the tone was a little shrill then I think that this is largely because this particular ‘dance’ is not very conducive to a one-to-a-part texture. The TTBB grouping of ‘Rustics and Fishermen’ was warmer but no less lithe: the chaps sang with a muscular spring, and I loved the relaxed ‘sinking’ which followed the buoyant short phrases. The final ‘Dance of Homage’ was a soothing conclusion.

Thomas Weelkes’ madrigal ‘As Vesta Was from Latmos Hill Descending’, which was published in the 1601 collection The Triumphs of Oriana, was a neat link back to the Elizabethan era proper. The rhythms danced blithely and the six singers (SSATTB) used the homophonic phrase-beginnings to effectively communicate the narrative which tells of the meeting on Latmos Hill between the descending goddess, Vesta, and her nymphs and the ascending Oriana and her shepherd: “Leaving their goddess all alone” the nymphs “hasted thither”, to mingle with the shepherds and sing “mirthful tunes”. The madrigal bloomed richly towards the close suggesting a joyful union - musical and more - of these pastoral dwellers. Orlando di Lasso’s ‘Dessus le Marché D’Arras’ (1584) also has a ‘cheeky’ text, describing the arrival of a Spaniard in the bustling market of Arras and his ensuing offer to pay any woman who accompanies him to his home. VOCES8 flew lightly through the rapid patter, making much of the propelling quaver-quaver-crotchet motif, and shifting meters fluently, though the balance between the voices was not always satisfying, with the female voices sounding a little too light.

Roxanna Panufnik is the ensemble’s current composer in residence and her setting of text from the 136th Psalm, Love Endureth, made for a reflective contrast - though one that seemed rather detached from the theme of ‘choral dances’. Telling of the persecution and deliverance of the Israelites from the Egyptians, and employing fragments of two ancient Sephardi chants, Love Endureth has a distinctly Jewish colour: VOCES8’s performance was wonderfully radiant, the swirling and oscillating harmonies, and piling close intervals, merging to form a vibrant tonal shimmer. The singers really relished the almost tactile grain of the harmonic hues.

Baritone Christopher Moore had introduced Panufnik’s work by inviting the audience at home to listen out for the repeated return to F# major - the “harmonic port in the storm” - which ultimately emerges triumphant, and symbolises God’s enduring love. It seemed a rather odd ‘pointer’, for anyone other than the musically educated and literate, and possessing perfect pitch, especially since VOCES8 aim to perform diverse repertoire ranging from esoteric classical compositions to the perennially popular. Such eclecticism was indeed upheld in this programme. ‘Straighten Up and Fly Right’ by Nat ‘King’ Cole rocked with an easy swing and gave tenor Blake Morgan an opportunity to show off his talents in the field of jazz; relaxed and debonair, he led the ensemble with silky voice and suave confidence, while bass Jonathan Pacey did a pretty good impression of a double bass riff. Irving Berlin’s ‘Cheek to Cheek’, made famous by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat, was a collective ballroom-sweep, Cockerham and Haines getting the toes tentatively tapping in leisurely fashion, enabling us to appreciate the rich harmonies, before the tempo snapped into shape and the vocal honours were shared around.

There were two arrangements by Alexander L’Estrange: of Van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’ and of ‘Sway’ by Luis Demetrio and Pablo Beltrán Ruiz. In the latter Pacey was a one-man rhythm section, a superb foundation for the flexible vocal jiving above. As the singers mimed strumming strings and shaking percussion, one could be forgiven for imagining that such ‘instruments’ really could be heard, that the violins were indeed soaring exultantly. Two arrangements of modern folk-songs - ‘Underneath the Stars’ by Kate Rusby and Dougie MacLean’s ‘Caledonia’ (the latter was arranged by Blake Morgan) - offered a softer palette. Again the ‘dance’ theme seemed to slip away, but who would care when they could enjoy such lovely cushioning harmonies, precise ensemble with small inner motifs occasionally foregrounded, and, at the close of Rusby’s song, atmospheric stillness. Educational materials relating to learning and singing ‘Caledonia’ will be made available to schools and colleges via VOCES8’s recently launched Digital Academy: aspiring young singers had much to admire here, particularly the expansion from gentle vocalisation towards sonic, harmonic and registral breadth - as if the energy which had been ‘resting’ within the song had been gradually brought to live and set free.

‘Ain’t that a Kick in the Head’ by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn brought things to a lively close, the two tenors, Morgan and Euan Williamson, enjoying their affectionate rivalry and the rest of the ensemble happy to let their hair down.

The next Live from London concert will be presented by APOLLO5 on 12th September at 7pm.

Claire Seymour

VOCES8: Andrea Haines (soprano), Eleonore Cockerham (soprano), Katie Jeffries-Harris (alto), Barnaby Smith (artistic director & countertenor), Blake Morgan (tenor), Euan Williamson (tenor), Christopher Moore (baritone), Jonathan Pacey (bass)

Benjamin Britten - Choral Dances from Gloriana; Nat ‘King’ Cole (arr. Jim Clements) - ‘Straighten Up and Fly Right’; Irving Berlin (arr. Jim Clements) ‘Cheek to Cheek’; Roxanna Panufnik - Love Endureth; Thomas Weelkes - ‘As Vesta Was from Latmos Hill Descending’; Orlando di Lasso - ‘Dessus le Marché D’Arras’; Kate Rusby arr. Jim Clements - ‘Underneath the Stars’; Dougie MacLean (arr. Blake Morgan) - ‘Caledonia’; Van Morrison (arr. Alexander L’Estrange) - ‘Moondance’; Luis Demetrio and Pablo Beltrán Ruiz (arr. Alexander L’Estrange) - ‘Sway’; Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn (arr. Jim Clements) - ‘Ain’t that a Kick in the Head’.

Live from London, broadcast from The VOCES8 Centre; Saturday 5th September 2020.