Sunday, 24 May 2015

Voces8 - vocal quality and distinctive style

Lux - Voces8 - Decca
Gjeilo, Tallis, Massive Attack, Tavener, Allegri, Esenvalds, Dubra, Hawes, Rachmaninov, Lauridsen, Folds, Todd, Mealor; Voces8, Christian Forshaw, Matthew Sharp; DECCA
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 5 2015
Star rating: 3.5

Centred on Baltic minimalists, a programme which evokes the ethereal from this talented vocal ensemble

Voces8 has developed into a highly polished and sophisticated vocal ensemble, combining technical proficiently with an interestingly clear idea of their sound and vocal quality. Their chosen repertoire ranges widely, from Renaissance through to contemporary. 

Voces8 in concert at St Bartholemew the Great, London
Voces8 in concert
at St Bartholemew the Great, London
On this new disc on the Decca label, Lux, their theme is light and they combine music by Ola Gjeilo, Thomas Tallis, Edward Elgar, Massive Attack, John Tavener, Gregorio Allegri, Eriks Esenvalds, Rihards Dubra, Patrick Hawes, Rachmaninov, Morten Lauridsen, Ben Folds, Will Todd and Paul Mealor and they are joined on some tracks by cellist Matthew Sharp and saxophone player Christian Forshaw. All the music on the disc is, in some sense, spiritual with the Baltic sacred minimalists and John Tavener providing the core backbone.

Though much of the music on the disc is in the choral repertory, Voces8 is very much a vocal ensemble. Whilst the singers, Andrea Haines, Emily Dickens, Christopher Wardle, Barnaby Smith, Oliver Vincent, Samuel Dressel, Paul Smith and Dingle Yandell come from classical, choral training, in the ensemble they venture rather beyond this and it is clear that microphone technique is highly important. More than anything else, they remind me of the original Swingle Singers in classical mode. Technique is superb throughout the disc, and all concerned sing with great control and a fine sense of balance, tone quality is carefully burnished too. But the overall result is highly specific to the group.

They open with Ubi Caritas by the young Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo. It is based on the plainchant Ubi Caritas sung in unison, but with some bits of naughty harmony. This is followed by Thomas Tallis's O Nata Lux, with Christian Forshaw adding discreet but evocative saxophone counter-melodies. The singers' approach to the Tallis is quite romantic, particularly in the phrasing but the quality is stunning.

The next piece is a bit curious, to say the least. It is Nimrod from Elgar's Enigma Variations arranged by John Cameron with Latin words from the Lux Aeterna. Vocally, the performance seems to rely on microphone technique and I have to admit that I used the word 'crooning' in my notes. I didn't recognise the next piece, it is in fact a rather striking arrangement by Geoff Lawson of Massive Attack's Teardrop which uses Arvo Part-like harmonies.

John Tavener's Mother of God, here I stand from The Veil of the Temple is beautifully done, though sung with a technique vastly different to that used by choirs such as the Temple Church Choir. This is very much Tavener transformed for vocal ensemble. They continue with the re-interpreting key pieces with Allegri's Miserere; a long way from a traditional version, this is very finely sung with some superb solo singing in Voces8's distinctive style.

A pair of works by contemporary Lativan composers come next, both examples of Baltic sacred minimalism. Stars by Eriks Esenvalds  is a completely magical piece, which combines singing from Voces8 with a beautifully sustained, close-harmony accompaniment on water glasses (evidently played by a group of willing volunteers). Rihards Dubra's Ave Maria I is purely vocal; deceptively simple and nicely done. The Prayer to a Guardian Angel by Patrick Hawes has, in fact, a similar feel though in fact Hawes is British. Combining the singers with Matthew Sharp's cello, there is a nice clarity to the feel of the text with a rather romantic melodic outline.

Bogoroditse Dyevo from Rachmaninov's All Night Vigil (Vespers) is better known, but here has a quite radical change of texture in being quietly crooned by just eight singers. O Nata Lux by Morten Lauridsen seems to share a familiar harmonic language with Lauridsen's well known O Magnum Mysterium. There is a danger this might seem like the composer mining an already successful vein, but it is beautiful and finely done here.

With Ben Folds The Luckiest (arranged by Jim Clements) we move into the popular, but again the arrangement keeps the feel close to the rest of the disc. Corde natus ex parentis is for me, slightly curious; it is the hymn tune Let all mortal flesh keep silence in an arrangement by Christian Forshaw, weaving his saxophone amongst hypnotic music.

We finish with another pair of British composers whose work has elements in common with the Baltic composers, though their language is all their own. My Lord has come by Will Todd is a rather lovely Christmas piece, whilst Paul Mealor's Ubi Caritas has become known for being sung at a certain wedding but deserves to be known in its own right.

There is a stunning quality to the vocalism on this disc, and a great deal to admire. Voces8 has a remarkable consistency to their style, bringing a rather romantic feel with vocal techniques a world away from traditional choral singing, yet remarkably akin too. This isn't a disc for those looking for traditional choral music, but if your ears are open then there is much to enjoy.

Ola Gjeilo (1978 - ) - Ubi Caritas [3:49]
Thomas Tallis (1505 - 1585) - O Nata Lux [2:58]
Edward Elgar (1857 - 1934) - Nimrod (Lux Aeterna) [3:53]
Robert Del Naja, Grantley Marshall, Andrew Vowles, Elizabeth Fraser (1963 - ) - Teardrop [4:32]
John Tavener (1944 - 2013) - Mother Of God, Here I Stand [2:52]
Gregorio Allegri (1582 - 1652) - Miserere Mei [7:07]
Eriks Esenvalds, Sara Teasdale (1884 - 1933) - Stars [4:04]
Rihards Dubra (1964 - ) - Ave Maria 1 [3:44]
Patrick Hawes (1958 - ) - Prayer To A Guardian Angel [2:58]
Sergey Vasil'yevich Rachmaninov (1873 - 1943) - Bogoroditse Devo (All-Night Vigil), Op.37 [3:07]
Morten Lauridsen (1943 - ) - O Nata Lux [4:28]
Benjamin Scott Folds (1966 - ) - The Luckiest [5:05]
Anonymous - Corde Natus Ex Parentis [3:57]
Will Todd (1970 - ) - My Lord Has Come [3:38]
Paul Mealor (1975 - ) - Ubi Caritas [3:48]
Voces8 (Andrea Haines, Emily Dickens, Christopher Wardle, Barnaby Smith, Oliver Vincent, Samuel Dressel, Paul Smith and Dingle Yandell)
Christian Forshaw (saxophone)
Matthew Sharp (cello)
Recorded Dore Abbey, Herefordshire, 15-16 May 2014, 7-8 July 2014, St Michael's Church, Highgate, 27 May 2014
DECCA 478 8053 1CD [1.00]
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