So after the silence from Classical Explorer on Monday and Tuesday, we present a stunning twofer of choral music to launch the week. It is also a timely post, given that the vocal group VOCES8 is curating a lockdown series of choral concerts webcast from the VOCES8 Foundation in the City of London (see here for details). The first concert was given by this group, and at the time of writing the second has taken place, too, an all-Monteverdi programme by Robert Hollingworth's excellent group I Fagiolini .
The two-disc After Silence by VOCES8 (on VOCES8 Records, the group's own label) is a magnificently produced celebration of the voice. Its title is derived from an Aldous Huxley quote: "After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music".
Divided into four parts, the first, "Remembrance," begins with Orlando Gibbons' astonishing Drop, Drop, Slow Tears, a piece with the most amazingly beautiful harmonies and the most poignant silences:
We've already met one of the pieces from this part before: Byrd's Ne irascaris, Domine in the King's Singers' disc Finding Harmony. Many, though, will be more familiar with Fauré's "Pie Jesu" from his Requiem. In purely choral garb, it works beautifully, with voices taking the role of the orchestra/organ:
While "Remembrance" focuses on death and loss (and also includes a touching "There is an Old Belief" from Sir Hubert Parry's Songs of Farewell), the second part, "Devotion," talks about sacred and secular love. It includes the so-called "Sestina," a group of six madrigals from Monteverdi's Lagrime d'amante al sepolcro delll'amata. The third of those six, "Dara la notte," begins with the most deliciously light textures:
The section concludes with a version for voices, oboe and organ of "Jesu bliebt meine Fruede" (from Bach's cantata, BWV 147). Nick Deutsch is the oboist, Alexander Hamilton the organist; Nick returns again in the "Redemption" section with simply the most delicious arrangement of Mahler. I was present at the recording session for this version of "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" (from Rückert-Lieder) and can attest to how time stood still as guest soprano Mary Bevan's voice blended with then floated away from the main choral body of sound, echoing gloriously around the church. Listen, too, to the purity of the VOCES8 sopranos, firstly how one curlicues ever upwards almost in tribute of the top C's of the Allegri Miserere, then later on as they imitate Mahler's original woodwind:
The Academy of Ancient Music joins VOCES8 for Bach's Cantata, BWV 150 ("Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich") to close - for the moment at least - the search for deliverance. Probably written while Bach was at Arnstadt, its slimline scoring fits these forces perfectly.
The final section, "Elemental," takes us back to Nature: complexity wrapped in simplicity, which seems to a thread running through many pieces here. The central work here is Britten's Hymn to St Cecilia, but let's close instead with a composer indelibly associated with the voice, Jonathan Dove, and the gorgeously warm textures of his Vertue (to a text by the metaphysical poet George Herbert):
The next concert in the Live in London series is the Academy of Ancient Music on August 15.