Friday 6 December 2013

Christmas sparkle with Edition Peters

Voces8 - Picture credit: Paul Stuart, © Decca Classics
Voces8 - Picture credit: Paul Stuart, © Decca Classics
Dust off the tinsel, it’s heading towards the longest night, and Edition Peters were hot off the sleigh-race starting block with their annual Christmas concert on Monday night (2 December). Entitled ‘The Candles Glow’, to match the content and the festive decoration of St Bartholomew the Great, this concert was a showcase for composers and performers from the Edition Peters stable. 

The church was packed out. Practically all the composers were present (we can perhaps forgive Bach his absence) along with their family and friends, and those of the performers, as well as the staff of Edition Peters and Edition Peters Artist Management (EPAM), giving this concert a homely feel. 

Voces8 opened the evening auspiciously with a favourite of mine: ‘O Magnum Mysterium’ by Morten Lauridsen (1943-). From my seat I could not see them and am not sure if they were in a side chapel or balcony near the back of the church. Wherever they were, their voices filled the church with Lauridsen’s beautiful, drawn out harmonies. 

I have been hoping to hear Voces8 for a while and was not disappointed. Voces8 have been performing professionally for about six years now, winning awards including two Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards this year. They also are part of Voces Cantabiles Music (VCM) a charity which aims to inspire people and creativity through music.

Lumina, a collection of ex-choral scholars from the Royal Holloway led by Rupert Gough, contained some lovely voices who will doubtless become soloists of the future. They began their their first official outing with real sparkle for ‘Stars’ by the Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds (1977-). ‘Stars’ uses the same sound world as the Lauridsen but with added ambience (if that is possible) by the use of an eerily atmospheric glass harmonica. Each member of the choir expertly juggled playing their wine glass filled with water with singing. A few nerves were evident, but they have a lot to be proud of.

‘Stars’ was followed by ‘Hodie Christus natus est (1)’ by Rihards Dubra (1964-) also from Latvia. In contrast to ‘Stars’ ‘Hodie’ was very simple harmonically, but yet very effective. Lumina’s performance of ‘Stetit Angelus’ also by Dubra was one of the highlights of the evening. The high rocking motion of high voices layered over held bass notes mirrored the crystallophone in ‘Stars, a parallel which continued after the chorale section with held notes and susurration.

Next was ‘O nata lux’ by Vytautas Miškinis (1954 -) a Lithuanian composer and ‘O Emanuel’ by Ešenvalds. The final piece in this set was an upbeat umpah waltz, ‘the Candles glow’, by Dubra. All three of these composers are involved in a new co-operation between Edition Peters and Musica Baltica to publish and promote Baltic composers. 

Lumina and Voces8 joined forces with Stephen Cleobury for the performance of ‘Long road’ by Ešenvalds. ‘Long Road’ is a setting of the love poem ‘Tals Cels’ by Paulina Barda (1890-1983), written for her husband. Again the members of Voces8 involved were off stage. Nevertheless their contribution was just as important, sometimes working with and sometimes against the main group. They also provided a little colour by playing bells and recorders. The apparent simplicity of Ešenvalds interpretation, and the folk-like instrumentals, belies its effectiveness in setting a mood, regardless of language.

After some speeches Stephen Cleobury played three pieces based on ‘Meine Seel’ erhebt den Heern’ on the organ. The ‘Chorale prelude’ and ‘Fuga sopra il Magnificat’ by J. S. Bach (1685 – 1750) framed a darkly austere ‘Chorale prelude from ‘Annunciation IV’ by Judith Bingham (1952-). 

The final set of songs in the concert was performed by Voces8 (finally we got to see them on stage!) and included two world premiers. The first of these ‘A prayer to St Augustine’ by Alexander Levine (1955 -) is one of four prayers to St Augustine commissioned by Voces8 from Levine. 

Levine was born in Russia but moved to the UK twenty years ago. The prayer mixes Christian musical heritage of both the eastern and western churches. I expected to hear more of the eastern ideas present at the start later in the piece - but perhaps this is thematic throughout the set or represents his personal journey. Nevertheless this prayer skilfully showed off Voces8 voices and dynamic range within a format that felt as familiar as the Tallis.

The second world premier, Roxanna Panufnik’s (1968-) setting of poem ‘Celestial Bird’ by Jennifer Powers (1905-1988), written as a thank you for Voces8, was unexpectedly delightful with birdsong from the sopranos embellishing the libretto, and led to Panufnik’s ‘Happy Christmas’ interpretation. In this version ‘Happy Christmas’ is sung in eight different languages, returning twice to a loud clashing chorus in English. The final chorus was simultaneously cheeky and a little angry... Three final songs, not on the programme but in their new Christmas album, completed the concert. Two settings of ‘Before the ending of the day’ by Thomas Tallis (1505 –1585) surrounded ‘Ave Maria’ by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 –1943) – all beautifully performed, were followed by ‘Away in a Manager’ arranged by friend of the choir Jim Clements.

Anyone who was not yet in the Christmas mood had one last chance as we were treated to (or subjected to depending on your humbug level) ‘Jingle Bells’ complete with actions. The only way to follow that is to wait for Santa Claus.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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