14 Sep 2020

‘Where All Roses Go’: Apollo5, Live from London

‘Love’ was the theme for this Live from London performance by Apollo5. Given the complexity and diversity of that human emotion, and Apollo5’s reputation for versatility and diverse repertoire, ranging from Renaissance choral music to jazz, from contemporary classical works to popular song, it was no surprise that their programme spanned 500 years and several musical styles.

Our progress through the centuries was more or less chronological and began at the Elizabethan court. The programme notes explained that the repertoire chosen reflected ‘love in its ‘many different manifestations’: ‘life and loss; beauty and mortality; brave romance and fragility in rejection; the steadfast devotion of a mother’s love (heightened by the awareness of inevitable separation); and in the Christian narrative the Virgin Mary and the eventual ultimate sacrifice.’

I’m not sure how the two motets from Byrd’s 1589 Cantiones Sacrae, with their non-liturgical texts alluding to the persecution and penitence of Byrd’s fellow Roman Catholics in Protestant England, fit into this narrative, but, singing from memory, Apollo5 summoned an appropriate urgency in the opening phrases of ‘Vigilate’ (“Watch ye”), making the counterpoint lithe and strong. These motets were just as likely to have been sung in domestic settings, with a single voice to a part, as by full choirs during religious services, so the characterful interplay of the individual voices that we heard here was apt. The contratenor part pushed tenor Oli Martin-Smith a little high at times, and the lower lying soprano motifs did not always cut through the dense texture, but bass Greg Link’s sure foundations bound the whole neatly together. The texts were clearly enunciated, too, with the sentiments of each phrase communicated through dynamics and colour. Perhaps the sudden forte for the cock-crow (“an gallicantu”) after the descending hush of “an media nocte” (in the middle of the night) was a trifle too emphatic, but the homophonic declaration, “omnibus dico” (I say to you all), and subsequent final warning, was commanding and persuasive.

‘Ne irascaris Domine’ was a soothing appeal, with emphasis on the lyrical expansiveness of Byrd’s linear lines (I found the tempo a touch too leisurely), but the singers did not neglect the harmonic nuances: the sudden interjection of the minor mode with the command, “Ecce” (Behold), was pointed with a surge of vigour and volume, and the false relation that highlights “iniquitas” was made more portentous by the reduced texture and softening of the tone. I’m not certain, but I think that the individual lines were occasionally reassigned, presumably to accommodate voice ranges and create particular effects; the overall result was harmonious and full of feeling.

There were continental motets from the period, too, in the form of Francisco Guerrero’s ‘Veni Domine’ and Josquin des Prez’s four-part ‘Gaude virgo’, the latter allowing tenor Josh Cooter to relax for a few minutes and enjoy the vigorous and buoyant performance of his fellow singers. The tempo adopted for ‘Gaude virgo’ was brisk, rhythms were animated and consonants crisp. The paired vocal ‘sparring’ was full of energy, though occasionally I found Martin-Smith’s tenor a little too emphatic, particular when rising to the top or when initiating the final “Alleluia”. The blend of voices wasn’t always as liquid and silken, nor the phrasing as refined, as some other a cappella ensembles who specialise in this repertoire, but Apollo5 used the character of their individual voices to bring about the expressive development such as the compositional methods are designed to achieve, and to nurture the devotional fervour of the music; the intonation was immaculate.

Thomas Tallis’s psalm-setting, ‘Why fum’th in fight’, is probably most familiar as the ‘theme’ which inspired Vaughan Williams’s ‘Tallis’ Fantasia for string orchestra. I wondered if the five voices would be able to create the sustained fluency of the congregation hymn; the answer was, yes. Apollo5 demonstrated a natural feeling for the fluid homophonic phrases, singing with lyrical expressiveness and a lovely fresh tone. We heard only one verse of the hymn, the last note of which was held and transformed into the opening of ‘Lost Innocence’ by Paul Smith, who is also the chief executive of VOCES8.

It’s a brave composer who would set text drawn from W.H. Auden’s ‘Hymn to St Cecilia’, inevitably inviting comparison with Britten, but Smith embraces the challenge by incorporating references to Britten, Vaughan Williams and Tallis within his own largely homophonous and ‘hymn-like’ score, in which lines and phrases of the text are repeated and stepwise movements of the synchronised vocal lines produce passing, gentle dissonances - in the manner of Eric Whitacre - which resolve into bare and open chords, creating a reverential mood. Smith sets only the last of Auden’s three stanzas together with the final three lines of the preceding stanza. This choice of starting point not only breaks a semantic unit but also removes the context for Auden’s words, which transform the emotions of the first stanza, urging man to quell the inner struggle between natural passion and the civilised reason which is a result of his ‘fallen’ state, and instead to embrace the loss of innocence. There can be no ‘art’ without the artist’s suffering: “O wear your tribulation like a rose.” In Smith’s setting the emphasis falls on the children who are urged to “weep away the stain” of their lost innocence. Apollo5 clearly found much to respond to in Smith’s composition. A well-focused bass solo brought about a central climax, with the truth that “what has been may never be again”, and subsequently each singer took their turn to delineate Auden’s elusive images, culminating in Clare Stewart’s tender shaping of Auden’s final line.

‘Lost Innocence’ took us into the 21st century, and thereafter we stayed in recent and present times. Eric Whitacre’s website describes ‘This Marriage’ (2004), which sets text by Rumi, as a ‘a small and simple gift to my former wife on the occasion of our seventh wedding anniversary’. It was Martin-Smith’s turn to take a short break now, as the other four voices euphoniously sang Whitacre’s characteristically gloopy harmonies. Taylor Scott Davis’s ‘Music, When Soft Voices Die’ is more texturally diverse and employs exploratory harmonies to convey the tactile richness of Shelley’s imagery - vibrating voices, pungent scents and fragile rose petals. It was beautifully sung, the combined voices both soothing and luxuriant. The rose imagery was sustained in Michael McGlynn’s ‘Where all Roses Go’, which featured a lovely, easeful solo from Josh Cooter above an expressive carpet of vocalised undulating harmonies.

Just when the mood seemed to be turning a little too sombre, Apollo5 lightened the ambience by switching track and venturing into various popular repertoires of the 20th century. (As so often in these terrific Live from London recitals, the 18th and 19 th centuries were disregarded.) ‘These Foolish Things’ had a richness which belied the number of voices and, like Elton John’s ‘Your Song’, offered individual singers the opportunity to shine while the ensemble demonstrated the breadth of their colour palette and their rhythmic animation. The Beatles’ ‘Eleanor Rigby’ was a little hesitant initially but soon got into its stride; Blake Morgan’s interesting arrangement certainly poses a few vocal challenges, which Apollo5 negotiated confidently and stylishly. Martin-Smith sang Yahoo’s ‘Only You’ with gentle expressiveness, accompanied by a light ‘instrumental’ accompaniment which was given some slight percussive assistance from Cooter. An encore, Jerome Kern’s ‘The Way You Look Tonight’, closed the performance in swinging style.

On 19th September, The Sixteen perform Music For Reflection, Live from London.

Claire Seymour

Apollo 5: Penelope Appleyard (soprano), Clare Stewart (soprano), Josh Cooter (tenor), Oli Martin-Smith (tenor), Greg Link (bass)

William Byrd - ‘Vigilate’, ‘Ne irascaris Domine’; Francisco Guerrero - ‘Veni Domine’; Josquin des Prez - ‘Gaude Virgo’; Thomas Tallis - Psalm 2, ’Third Tune’ from Archbishop Parker’s Psalter; Paul Smith (for Apollo5) - ‘Lost Innocence’; Eric Whitacre - ‘This Marriage’; Taylor Scott Davis (for Apollo5) - ‘When Soft Voices Die’; Michael McGlynn - ‘Where all Roses Go’; Jack Strachey & Harry Link (arr. Jim Clements) - ‘These Foolish Things’; Elton John (arr. Matt Greenwood for Apollo5) - ‘Your Song’; The Beatles (arr. Blake Morgan for Apollo5) - ‘Eleanor Rigby’; Vince Clark (arr. VOCES8) - ‘Only You’.

Streamed live from the VOCES8 Centre, St Anne and St Agnes, City of London; Saturday 12th September 2020.