The Ensemble Vocalisa Variabile presented a varied programme in the Kirche St Georg, Denzlingen, featuring eight different composers whose period of activity spanned no less than six centuries. In addition to a number of fine musical high-points, it was this versatility which proved to be one of the most impressive aspects of the performance.

The six female singers which make up Vocalisa Variabile are directed by alto and founder Gabriele Kniesel, and it was a testament to their excellent sense of ensemble that her role as “conductor” could be reduced to a subtle minimum. From the first phrase, one had the impression of six individuals who combined well to make a satisfying whole, exhibiting a well-blended timbre and, for the most part, a good sense of balance.

The Venetian Antonio Lotti had composed over thirty operas and a large number of choral works both sacred and secular by the time of his death in 1740. He is seen as one of a number of composers who bridged the gap between the already established Baroque and the emerging Classical styles, although his Missa in A minor (from which the Credo which opened the concert was taken) displays influences from his conscientious study of the late Renaissance masters such as Michael Praetorius, both in its textural and its harmonic structure.

The sparse beauty of the Credo, and indeed of Palestrina’s Ave Maria which followed, is characterized by melodic lines of a stark, open cleanliness, which were perhaps a little clouded by the ensemble’s rich vibrato. The intonation was excellent, however, and the solid foundation provided by altos Gabriele Kniesel and Christiane Schmeling was particularly noteworthy.

The rest of the programme was made up of works from the Romantic period or the 20th century, and it was here that the members of Vocalisa Variabile really came into their own. Giuseppe Verdi’s setting of “Paradise” from Dante’s Divine Comedy calls on a particularly wide vocal range, and its winding, chromatic harmonies are interspersed with a number of testing unison passages. These were handled with aplomb, and one or two tiny lapses of intonation in the more thickly scored sections did nothing to detract from a sensitive performance, rich in dynamic contrast.

German musicologist and composer Clytus Gottwald is perhaps known best for his reworking of a wide range of classical works for vocal ensemble, pieces by Gustav Mahler, Alban Berg and Franz Liszt among his varied output. The setting by Claude Debussy of Gregoire le Roy’s bitterly forlorn poem Les angélus, originally for voice and piano, was arranged by Gottwald for six female voices, and the effect is gripping. The opening, a distant chiming of doleful bells, takes on a chilling, almost human nature, through which the boundaries of the protagonist’s ever increasing hopelessness (“I live only now through shadows and the evening”) and the pealing call to Matins become increasingly blurred.

Instead of performing from the stage, the ensemble chose to sing from a position in the nave between the two banks of audience members, and this almost uncomfortable sense of intimacy, combined with Debussy’s angular whole-tonality, suited the piece’s subject matter well.

Arvo Pärt’s remarkable setting of Psalm 122, Peace upon you, Jerusalem, is something of stylistic smorgasbord, a journey through Gregorian landscapes which ends in whispering dissonance, stopping to recall a distant memory of a folk melody on the way. The subtle changes of articulation which characterize each section are of no little importance, and whilst they could perhaps have been a little firmer in their depiction, there were some beautifully controlled quiet passages in particular.

André Caplet won the Grand Prix de Rome composition prize in 1901 ahead of Maurice Ravel, and it is troublesome that he is known almost exclusively for this feat, alongside one or two orchestrations of works by his teacher, mentor and great friend Claude Debussy. Listening to his Messe à trois voix makes for a fascinating experience when placed in its historical context, composed in 1919 during a period when perhaps most notably in Vienna, composers had begun to place great artistic importance on methods of reduction and great precision.

Calling on markedly reduced forces (three parts instead of the more orthodox four, five or six), it is for the most part a rather stark, sombre work, tainted perhaps by his horrific personal experiences during the Great War which would eventually lead to his death of pleurisy not five years later. Vocalisa Variable gave an excellently paced account, dark in colour and timbre. The Gloria was particularly expressive, sopranos Johanna Schutzbach and Regina Kabis lending the subtle, accented structure of the melody just the right amount of weight.

The work’s substantial nature meant that Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine seemed almost a trifle banal in the context in which it came. Despite the highest point of the work sounding somewhat forced, it was a flowing, lyrical reading of this popular work, which brought an excellently performed and imaginatively conceived programme to an end.