05 Aug 2020

After Silence: VOCES8

‘After silence, that which comes closest to expressing the inexpressible is music.’ Aldous Huxley’s words have inspired VOCES8’s new disc, After Silence, a ‘double album in four chapters’ which marks the ensemble’s 15th anniversary.

In his essay ‘The Rest is Silence’, Huxley reflects on human responses to beauty, pleasure, pain, ecstasy and death - how such things are experienced but not ‘expressed’ through silence, and through music. Essentially, thus, the two hours of diverse music presented by VOCES8 explores, or perhaps represents, what it is to be human. Listening to this eclectic compendium of choral glories, I repeatedly found myself recalling the question and answer that Beethoven poses at the start of his last major composition, the Op.135 string quartet: ‘Muß es sein? … Es muß sein!’

The choral works which comprise each ‘chapter’ of After Silence relate to themes associated with the four elements: Remembrance invokes death, loss and the return to earth; Devotion focuses on the flames of love, sacred and secular; Redemption celebrates rebirth and the renewed breath of life; Elemental returns to the ebb and flow of nature.

The path of each stage of the journey is winding and far-reaching. Remembrance moves from Gibbons to Pärt, back to Byrd via Harris, then on to Fauré, stopping at Parry on the way. A unity of performance style - beautifully blended vocal groupings, pristine timbres and textures, mellifluous phrasing - creates coherence, but sometimes neglects the piquancy which springs from the dynamic union of, and tension between, music and word, and which can momentarily inject a bittersweet drop into the tender and poignant.

For this reason - and I’ll get what is practically my only misgiving about this terrific compendium of choral music out of the way at the start - for all their sonic beauty, I’m not really enamoured of the Renaissance offerings in Remembrance. Gibbons’ ‘Drop, Drop, Slow Tears’ transfigures personal, emotional dissonance through musical and collective consonance. This is a wonderfully affirmative communal hymn, but here the tempo is rather slow which diminishes the sense of congregational positivity. Rather than injecting uplifting confirmation, the phrases threaten to dissipate: the final notes of some phrases are cut off prematurely. This is a direct statement of Anglican faith: it needs no mannerism and while one might expect or anticipate a breath before final phrase, “but through my tears”, to heighten the cadential assurance, but here we have a huge hiatus and then a rallentando which feel unduly ponderous.

William Byrd’s ‘Ne Irascaris, Domine’ and ‘Civitas Sancti Tui’ from the Liber Sacrarum Cantionum of 1589 are similarly lethargic, and this diffuses the impact of the accumulating imitations. The 54 entries on the words ‘desolata est’ should overwhelm the listener, and each entry must make its own impact and statement, especially as Byrd shuns harmonic heightening; but here the ties, syncopations and suspension do not inject the necessary vitality. In a short article in the generous and handsome accompanying 52-page booklet - which includes essays, texts, translations and visual art by Debbie Loftus - Paul Williamson notes that the choral works showcased have been ‘freed from their original contextual restraints’, which seems to deny that such contexts may be integral to the music’s ‘meaning’.

VOCES8 are on firmer ground with the incantatory accumulations of Arvo Pärt’s The Deer’s Cry - a setting of a 5th-century text thought to be by Saint Patrick and which tells the story of Patrick leading a group of monks through the woods, following an ambush: they are taken for a mother deer and her calves, and so they are saved. The eight voices expand thrillingly to fill the sonic canvas and the placing of the fragmentary phrases amid the silences is careful and controlled. Parry’s ‘There is an old belief’ from the Songs of Farewell has a lovely fluency: the harmonic swivels feel consoling rather than disconcerting and there is assurance in the steadiness of timbre and tempo. The unison voices literally thunder, “That creed I fain would keep”, then sink in reverential awe as the sequential phrases rise with intensifying harmonic tartness. Best of all in the Remembrance sequence is William Harris’s motet for double unaccompanied choir, ‘Bring Us, O lord God’: the antiphonal dynamics and phrasings swell sonorously and the final “Amen” really does evoke the rumbling shudders of the finest cathedral organ.

V8 Silence.jpgVOCES8. Photo credit: Kaupo Kikkas.

The ensemble’s artistic director, Barnaby Smith, observes that VOCES8 strives for versatility and thus alongside the canonical choral masterpieces are works which demonstrate ‘the variety of genres and soundworlds the ensemble employs in order to engage with our diverse audiences’. I’m not a fan of the music of Eric Whitacre, whose ‘A Boy and a Girl’ and ‘Sleep’ open Devotion and close the final chapter, Elemental, respectively, but millions are and many will no doubt enjoy these offerings. Jonathan Dove’s ‘The Three Kings’ is certainly to my liking, however. The coolness and translucency of the singers’ colours and textures in the first section - in which Dorothy L Sayers’ text depicts the presentation of myrrh to the infant Christ by the youngest of the magi - occasionally flinches with a bitterness which dissolves with the offering of frankincense, and finally thickens into liquid gold: a fountain of dazzling drops that suddenly spray like fireworks from the spinning Catherine wheel of overlapping laudations, “Many a gaud and glittering toy”, as the refrain blossoms ecstatically, “O balow, balow la lay,/ Gifts for a baby King, O”. A contrasting calm regularity is established in Philip Stopford’s Lully, Lulla, Lullay, a setting of the Coventry Carol, but there is no less rapture in the soaring descant flights of the final verse.

Characteristically precise ensemble singing, and attentiveness to dynamic and textural contrasts, articulate the diverse emotions of one Glauco, the grieving protagonist of Scipione Agnelli’s poem, to which Monteverdi gave musical utterance in Lagrime d’amante al sepolcro dell’amata from the Sixth Book of Madrigals. The Italian is clearly enunciated, but there’s a certain poetic spontaneity lacking, such as would convey the fluctuating extremes endured by this bereaved lover before the tomb of his beloved - and by Monteverdi himself whose own grief following the death of his pupil, the 18-year-old Caterina Martinelli, almost drove the composer to death. Noting ‘the great suffering I underwent’, Monteverdi later explained: “I almost killed myself when writing Arianna.” Here, as so often, Bach assuages the pain, in the form of ‘Jesus bleibet meine Freude’ (Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring) in which VOCES8 are joined by oboist Nick Deutsch and organist Alexander Hamilton from the Academy of Ancient Music. It’s warm, gently expansive and consoling.

We hear again from both Bach and the Academy of Ancient Music in the composer’s early cantata, ‘Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich’, which closes the Redemption chapter on disc two. The six movements interleave excerpts from Psalm 25 and anonymous verse, as Bach depicts the believer’s struggle to balance quotidian tribulations with faith in God’s everlasting love. Voices and instruments are effectively balanced throughout, and the frequent and sudden tempo changes in the choruses are confidently negotiated. The faster sections have an uplifting vitality while the homophonic pleas are urgent and sincere.

There are some unfamiliar names and voices in this chapter, too, which begins with the collective conviction and peace of ‘Spaséñiye, sodélal’ (Salvation is Created (1912)), a setting of a Russian chant melody by Pavel Tschesnokoff (1877-1944) based on Psalm 74. We travel both ‘The Long Road’, in the form of Ēriks Ešenvalds’s (b.1977) setting verses by Latvian poet Paulīna Bārda, and ‘The Road Home’, carried along the latter by Stephen Paulus’ arrangement of an American tune, ‘Prospect’ (published in Southern Harmony in 1835) to which Paulus has set new words by Michael Dennis Browne. The latter wends its way warmly, while the shining sincerity and elation of the former is broken only temporarily by the mystery of the voice’s soft susurrations and an ocarina’s haunting song (Andrea Haines). The familiar is also made anew: Mahler’s ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (from the Rückert-Lieder) is presented in an arrangement for eight voices, obbligato cor anglais and solo soprano, the latter sung by Mary Bevan. Deutsch’s firm, warm cor anglais complements the shining intensity of Bevan’s vocal line and, above and around the dense mass of voices, their conversation achieves a peaceful apotheosis.

Elemental includes two world premiere recordings of works commissioned by VOCES8: Jonathan Dove’s ‘Vertue’, a thrilling kaleidoscopic celebration of vocal colour, and Mårten Jansson’s ‘An Elemental Elegy’ which floats with an easy melodism and elegiac sweetness. Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia is the longest work included in the four chapters of After Silence, and it inspires some of the finest singing from VOCES8. The voices caress the lilting phrases of ‘In a garden shady’ but the assertive declarations are a glistening blaze, fired by rhythmic strength and vitality. ‘I cannot grow’ is sprightly, pattering on tiptoe then blossoming in mischievous bursts of light, while the final movement’s depiction of the ‘dear white children casual as birds’ manages to convey both heavenly heights and the reality of human experience. The unison plea to Blessed Cecilia - “appear in visions,/ To all musicians, appear and inspire” - which closes each of the three parts is first innocently hopeful, then more urgent and pressing, and finally a euphonious resolution of angelic innocence and earthly experience.

Huxley’s essay, ‘The Rest is Silence’ (from Music at Night and Other Essays (1931)) is printed within the booklet. At a time when live performances have been silenced, concert halls gather dust and we struggle to understand the unimaginable and articulate the inexpressible, Huxley’s concluding words seem apposite: ‘When the inexpressible had to be expressed, Shakespeare laid down his pen and called for music. And, if the music should also fail? Well, there was always silence to fall back on. For always, always and everywhere, the rest is silence.’

Claire Seymour

VOCES8 performed works from After Silence in the first concert of the Live from London festival which runs each Saturday evening for ten weeks. Ticket holders will be able to watch live and/or on demand from the date of broadcast until 3rd October and in addition will be granted viewing rights to the full, 4K post-produced, concert films from the 4 th-31st October. Each broadcast concert lasts 60 minutes.