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Precision and Pizzazz!

Voces8 take choral singing stratospheric

a review by Julia Meredith

Before this evening, I had only ever listened to Voces 8; even their album covers are tasteful designs drawn from Nature. And judging by their perfectionism, the result of phenomenal musical talents allied to relentless practice, I must admit to expecting a company of rarified academic musicians, more focused on the sound they made than making sure their socks matched.
Nothing, in fact, like the foxy crew who sashayed onstage, bringing an immediate air of glamour to a packed St James. Suddenly it felt as if this might be more than just impeccable and exquisite singing; they gave off the air that they meant to have fun, and we would too.
Without a word, they began: Haec Dies, to mark William Byrd’s 400th anniversary. With my eyes closed, their pitch-perfect harmonising and precision were unmistakeably the Voces8 sound I’d been anticipating – but the relish with which they skipped through the interweaving melodies, bouncing the parts off one another with elastic ease, was more noticeable in the flesh.
Benjamin Britten’s Choral Dances from Gloriana commemorate Elizabeth I’s state visit to Norwich, as a masque in which country girls, peasants and fishermen pay tribute to their Queen. Gloriana is not often heard (it was new to me) and I can’t understand why it doesn’t crop up more frequently in the concert repertoire. I suspect it may just fall into the ‘too difficult’ category. Here, each individual singer revealed the flavour of each character by their expression, vocal and facial: it made user-friendly a piece which could lose an audience in its intricacy and rapid switches of tempo. Or, indeed, lose a less experienced choir. The entire evening was presented without a score in sight, never easy – but in this case, with only one voice per part, it must have been fiendish. Their syncopated entrances were exact to the microsecond. Their eight voices blended, and yet remained distinct even as they combined. There was something so exhilarating about the riskiness of it all – how easy it would have been to lose one’s way altogether! – but with absolute confidence they deftly danced their way through the work to a photo finish and tumultuous applause. For me it was the highlight of a pretty exceptional evening.
Their next two pieces, Nat King Cole’s Straighten up and Fly Right, and Cheek to Cheek by Irving Berlin, were a triumph of showmanship and swing. Gorgeous harmonies were given full rein by a comic lightness of touch and a dance routine that made every performer a soloist in their own right. This was multitasking of a very high order.
The switch into Bogoroditse Devo, from Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil, was powerful. They can turn the mood to transcendent beauty as fluidly as they aced the fancy footwork seconds before, to hover as disembodied as the echoes in the dome of a Russian Orthodox cathedral. Such breathe control… their sustained notes are as consistent as an organ of voices, yet they never lose their expressive tenderness. It eased almost seamlessly into Jake Runestad’s Let my Love be Heard, a surprisingly effective pairing.
Palestrina’s lustrous Magnificat Primi Toni showed part singing at its finest. It was like a four-a-side mixed doubles match, polyphonic call and response bouncing around the apse of St James (nice to hear the superior acoustics being put to good use!). Harmonies shoot in and out, faultless in their timing and pitch; it speaks of years of practice to reach such definition, to keep each part in its own sound silo without being ‘muddied’ by those alongside. The swelling crescendo with which it drew to a close was hair-raising … how often does a final Amen raise a wolf-whistle?!
The Guernsey Youth Choir, led by Rachel Wright, introduced the second half, and it was gratifying to see how they met the challenge of singing with one of the world’s finest vocal ensembles. Their selection was
charming – Sing a Song of Sixpence showed great control of parts and diction, and allowed for some spirited drama en route. Their focus on Rachel during En la Macarenita and Down to the River to Pray, all sung without music, illustrated why the choral life of Guernsey is so dynamic, and in safe hands for the future. These young singers have the potential to continue their singing at the highest level, and I’m sure given such role models as these, they’ll want to.
It is perhaps in madrigals that part-singing finds its most whimsical expression. The joyful weaving of tunes, the skittish patterning and sweet-sour modulations, all combine to create an idyllic vision, a musical Eden where voices can mix and mingle at their ease. From Bourree, Ward Swingle’s mischievous arrangement of part of JS Bach’s English Suite No.2, we moved into Thomas Weelkes’ As Vesta Was from Lathmos Hill descending. Weelkes turns a chance encounter between nymphs and shepherds into an enthusiastic dalliance in which lots of mingling, vocal and otherwise, takes place. He even slips in a dollop of flattery for his patroness, Queen Elizabeth I, via a rousing post-frolic chorus by the revellers of ‘Long live fair Oriana’. As talented a politician as a musician!
Orlando di Lassus’s Dessus le Marche d’Arras has an equally ribald theme. This time it’s set amongst market folk in Arras, and describes a visiting Spaniard’s insolent proposition to purchase more than just fresh produce. Voces8 ably combined scrupulous precision and naughty narrative, with a nudge and a wink that was irresistible.
Having heard Kate Rusby sing her own Underneath the Stars at the Sark Folk Festival several years ago, I couldn’t imagine it being improved on. Now I can. Voces8 had the restraint to let the silence grow until it was a presence… so when their gentle harmonies emerged, everyone was utterly receptive. The luminous purity of the notes and simple words carried an intense emotional charge that pinned us to our seats, unblinking, scarcely breathing, unwilling to break the spell. It was magical.
I could have finished there. But there was melancholy to banish, and their final three pieces had the swing and swagger to send us forth smiling. Van Morrison’s Moondance has a laconic, almost detached quality to it, a world away from the unguarded sincerity of the previous piece. Their polished choreography lifted us into a world where cutting a dash was the most potent tool of persuasion, yet they managed to convey real feeling behind the fancy footwork.
In similar style, Sway by Ruiz opened with a beatbox solo, and kept the vocal percussion going throughout. It caught us up in the sensual mambo rhythm, and the group turned it into a hip-swaying display suggestive of higher temperatures and lower inhibitions. It could have been over the top, but their glee in camping it up made it a shared delight.
The last two, Come Fly With Me (to the Moon) brings together these two well-known stalwarts of Sinatra and similar crooners, and gives them a delicious spin that makes them sound fresh-minted. The way both tunes blend, fuse and counterpoint with one another is matched by the singers’ dance moves, both so crisp and agile it makes you almost forget the rigour of their choral technique.
The applause went on an on – but while the programme had officially ended, we couldn’t and wouldn’t let them off without an encore. I Won’t Dance is also Swing, the coquettish song and dance giving us a bravura (and hilarious) treatise on the politics and pitfalls of dating in about two minutes.
Congratulations to Joey Edwards, tireless Director of the Guernsey Choral Festival, for staging yet another superb performance; and thanks from everyone in the audience to Guernsey Arts and Dorey Financial Modelling, whose generous sponsorship made this evening and the entire Festival possible.


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