When I was growing up in Dorset, I spent several summers singing in the Milton Abbey Music Festival, which at the time was a mostly amateur affair, with a chorus of local singers. These days the festival has evolved into something much grander, with a week-long choral course and concerts run by the ensemble VOCES8. The essence of the festival remains unchanged though: choral music concerts and services, in Milton Abbey’s beautiful setting, in the heart of the Dorset countryside.

VOCES8 © Ikon Arts
VOCES8
© Ikon Arts

This evening’s concert brought together VOCES8, the eight Scholars on their training scheme, and guest conductor Robert Hollingworth, for a programme entitled “Lagrime”. Before delving into the grief-laden music that formed most of the concert though, VOCES8 opened with Sebastián de Vivanco’s Veni dilecte mi, for double-choir, one of those sensuous Renaissance settings from the Song of Songs which sound like a love-song dressed up as religious music. Like similar ensembles, VOCES8 sing with an absolutely laser-straight tone, and with a luxurious sheen to the sound, which was then carefully crafted into exquisite tenderness by Hollingworth’s distinctive and expressive conducting style.

Two 20th-century English works, Kenneth Leighton’s Drop, drop slow tears and Peter Warlock’s The full heart introduced the main theme of the concert. Warlock’s piece sets a poem by Robert Nichols that reflects on the unbearable loneliness of the soldier who cannot share the horror of war with those who weren’t there. Warlock draws on the extreme chromatic language of Gesualdo, with tight, biting harmonies that coursed through the music in subtly changing waves. The treble-like purity of the sopranos was particularly effective in both works, with a powerful bass line adding richness to the texture.

Gesualdo’s influence on Warlock formed part of a secondary theme of music that looks back in time. Bach’s cantata Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (the ‘Actus Tragicus’) with its accompaniment for a pair each of recorders and violas da gambas created a sound-world that was already old when Bach wrote it, and Durufle’s Requiem in the second half drew structurally on the earlier setting by Fauré as well as being infused with the sound of Gregorian chant.

VOCES8 were joined for Actus Tragicus by members of the Academy of Ancient Music; the recorder duo of Rachel Brown and Rebecca Miles were so tightly matched that they sounded like one instrument. Soprano soloist Andrea Haines had given us textbook high, ethereal singing in the Warlock but in the Bach she showed more character and a richer tone, pleading “Come, Lord Jesus” with the fervour of religious ecstasy, a spirit set free from the chorus who persist in being weighed down by the ancient laws of death.

Bass Jonathan Pacey introduced paradise with lovely phrasing, whilst Hollingworth deftly juggled the combination of the solo line, the quietly bustling instruments that seemed to reflect the eternal, unchanging purpose of God’s will, and the serene chorale. The earlier choral movements were crisply purposeful as the chorus set out the ponderous Old Testament instructions, but by the end, Christ’s intervention transformed the pain of death into a joyful acceptance of paradise and eternal rest. The singers danced through the final chorus, with little surges of light and shade, whilst the instruments fluttered sweetly around them.

Milton Abbey’s organ is currently covered in plastic to protect it during building works, so Duruflé’s Requiem in the second half of the concert, was accompanied by the organ of Hereford Cathedral, courtesy of an electric organ and the technological wizardry of the Hauptwerk organ sampling system. There were moments when the amplification was a little too apparent, but on the whole the set-up worked well, and the registrations available from the Hereford organ allowed Luke Bond to create the distinctive rounded sweetness of the French organ sound.

The tenors and basses of VOCES8 shone in the Duruflé, singing the long, plainsong-influenced unison passages with a relaxed freedom. The singing throughout was warm, filled with light and always flowing forwards. Hollingworth let the chorus off the reins for moments of drama: the end of the Kyrie was suddenly, shockingly loud and the impassioned cries of “Libera me” were underpinned by massive pedal notes in the organ. Mezzo soloist Katherine Jeffries-Harris began her Pie Jesu rather stiffly but, perhaps encouraged by the richness of Matthew Sharp’s cello, she gradually opened up her sound with a nice touch of vibrato. The overall effect of the Duruflé was one of an expensive, carefully-crafted simplicity; even when the choir were on a single unison note, such as in the Lux Aeterna, there was shape and direction. The final pile-up of bright harmonies in the In Paradisum, and deeply resonant basses ended the Requiem and the concert in awestruck stillness.

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