Wednesday 1 November 2023

The level of polish & perfection is remarkable: Apollo5's Haven

Haven: Byrd, Paul Smith, de Monte, Taylor Scott Davis, Undine Smith Moore, Victora Vita Poleva, Michael McGlynn, Ola Gjeilo, Sarah McLachlan, Marta Keen; Apollo 5; VOCES8 Records
Haven: Byrd, Paul Smith, de Monte, Taylor Scott Davis, Undine Smith Moore, Victora Vita Poleva, Michael McGlynn, Ola Gjeilo, Anna Kuzina-Rozhdestvenskaya, Sarah McLachlan, Marta Keen; Apollo5; VOCES8 Records
Reviewed 30 October 2023 by Florence Anna Maunders

Apollo5's new album features a glowing performance of Byrd's five-part mass alongside works  carefully selected to sustain the meditative mood including six works commissioned for the album

The five-voice a cappella ensemble Apollo5 has been with us for a dozen years now and continues to produce polished, glowing recordings with their new line up, including bass Augustus Perkins Ray (who blends perfectly with the remaining four members) for his first disc with the group, Haven on VOCES8 Records, which consists of the six movements of Byrd's masterful Mass for Five Voices intertwined with 11 other pieces from a remarkably wide range of other sources with music by Paul Smith, Philippe de Monte, Taylor Scott Davis, Undine Smith Moore, Victora Vita Poleva, Michael McGlynn, Ola Gjeilo, Anna Kuzina-Rozhdestvenskaya, Sarah McLachlan, and Marta Keen, including six tracks commissioned especially for this album.

The highlight of the album is, as might be expected, the ensemble's performance of Byrd's mass – emotional when needed, but maintaining a regular and calm unfolding of clear counterpoint, soaring melismas and a certain relentlessness that keeps the flow of the musical lines through every cadence without breaking the restless forward drive of Byrd's writing. Gross theatricalities are avoided pretty much throughout, and the feeling is that these are five singers who are truly in service to the musicianship of the composer. Yes, they do reflect the meaning of the text, and create a variety of moods and movements, but always in exquisite good taste.

The new works are carefully selected to sustain the meditative mood through the album, as might be expected with Apollo5's stated aim of creating “...a collection of aspirations for peace, rest and hope...”, with particular praise reserved for Paul Smith's new work Heaven-Haven, which uses searingly beautiful dissonances, and phrases that sigh into silence, to effectively and memorably set seafaring poems by George Herbert and Gerald Manley Hopkins. The two short pieces by Victoria Vita Polevá combine deceptively sweet harmonies with fresh modal inflections and extended chant-like melodic melismas to create fleeting moments of ethereal beauty.

The one thing that's holding this album somewhat, is the choice of repertoire. Apollo5 deliver a beautiful, soulful performance of everything they present, but when this is applied to their own arrangements of Sarah McLachlan's ballad Angel, and the traditional tunes Wayfaring Stranger and Homeward Bound, the result unfortunately falls on the wrong side of schmaltzy, especially when placed alongside and against Byrd's wonderful mass setting. They're nevertheless given full commitment by the choir, but the fact that they're placed together as the last three tracks of the album, after the stunning concluding work related to Byrd's mass, the new setting of the Agnus Dei by Ukrainian composer Anna Kuzina-Rozhdestvenskaya, suggests that maybe Apollo 5 and their producer saw these last three items as “bonus tracks” rather than a key component of the artistic vision. My recommendation to listeners: stop after the echoing bells which bring the fourteenth track to an end.

Despite my quibbles about the inclusion of these last three tracks, the level of polish and perfection of the performances heard here is remarkable. There's an awful lot to commend about this release: the quality of the singing on display throughout the seventeen tracks is consistently superb, and never less than excellent. A warm, resonant (but not overly so) recording acoustic and a natural-sounding stereo capture places the five voices directly in the centre stage, in a shimmering halo of unobtrusive reverberation. Every syllable is clear, the ensemble blended & balanced, and the intonation is flawless.

Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders

William Byrd (1543-1623) - Mass for Five Voices: Kyrie
Paul Smith - Heaven-Haven
William Byrd - Mass for Five Voices: Gloria
Philippe de Monte (1521-1603 - Voce mea ad Dominum clamavi
Taylor Scott Davis (born 1980) - Sonnet 81
William Byrd - Mass for Five Voices: Credo
Undine Smith Moore (1904-1989) - We Shall Walk Through The Valley
Victora Vita Poleva(born 1962) - Life-giving Spring
Victora Vita Poleva - Easter Stikhere
William Byrd - Mass for Five Voices: Sanctus, Benedictus
Michael McGlynn (born 1964) - O Pia Virgo
Ola Gjeilo (born 1978) - Northern Lights
William Byrd - Mass for Five Voices: Agnus Dei
Anna Kuzina-Rozhdestvenskaya - Agnus Dei
Sarah McLachlan (born 1968), arr. Penelope Appleyard - Angel
Traditional, arr. Paul Smith - Wayfaring Stranger
Marta Keen (born 1953), arr. Paul Smith - Homeward Bound
Apollo 5 (Penelope Appleyard, Josh Cooter, Oli Martin Smith, Clare Stewart, Augustus Perkins Ray)
VOCES8 Records VCM151 1CD

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