Proms at … Cadogan Hall/Proms Chamber Music 1: VOCES8

“From the supple plainchant melodies of Hildegard of Bingen to the sophisticated choral polyphony of Palestrina, Byrd and Lassus, Proms debut artists VOCES8 return to music’s origins to launch a sequence of lunchtime concerts spanning 800 years.” [BBC Proms website]


Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 22 July, 2019
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

BBCProms 2019's Proms Chamber Music 1: VOCES8Photograph: Twitter @DeccaClassicsInterspersing some familiar choral works oft-heard in concerts or cathedral or church services and choral evensongs with snatches of the unfamiliar and two works by contemporary composers was a great way to kick-off the Proms at Cadogan Hall season. VOCES8 is a top-notch ensemble, with a very distinct sound. The sopranos set the tone with their clean chanting of Hildegard of Bingen’s Spiritus sanctus vivicans vita, after which the excerpt of Pérotin’s Viderunt omnes, dating from the early quarter of the twelfth-century showed off the ensemble at its appreciable best. Moving back to well-known territory with Josquin des Prez’s Ave Maria … Virgo serena the group deftly handled the many changes of pace. The intricate yet joyous complexities of Tomás Luis de Victoria’s Regina coeli was sung with infectious brilliance – every burst of phrase cascading over what had gone before like a musical fountain.

This was inspirational to the work by Jonathan Dove. Starting with a repeated five-note upward-moving scale theme it too has lots of varied sections and some dazzling tonality shifts toward the end. Elements of unaccompanied lower voices reminiscent of some of the highly rhythmic sections of some of Carl Orff’s choral output are a highlight of the central section that follows passages with evident basis in polyphonic chant traditions, yet the whole has a great sense of unity and integrity.

Lassus, Palestrina and finally Bryd anchored the listener once again, the clear, bell-like soprano mix in the Byrd sounding ethereally in the Cadogan Hall acoustic. The premiere of Alexia Sloane’s Earthward [BBC commission], set to a text of her own, followed. This showed VOCES8’s virtuosic skills as an ensemble for the shifts of tonality and the mesmerising, almost playful, use of dissonance must make this extremely hard to sing. The work starts with a thrice-repeated declamation of the words “Oh Earth”, each one ushering in a different sonic quality – awe, anxiety and sorrow could be some words used to describe the moods conjured. Original and exciting.

The recital ended with Gibbons’s setting of Psalm 47 – O clap your hands. Once off radio transmission there was an encore – a beautifully modulated account of Rachmaninov’s Bogoroditse Devo.

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