Making their BBC Proms debut at Cadogan Hall, vocal ensemble VOCES8 presented an impressively varied programme spanning over 800 years, from Hildegard of Bingen to two works by contemporary composers, one a new BBC commission. Whilst the bulk of their repertoire was Renaissance, they more than demonstrated their versatility through these two contemporary works and the two very early works that opened their programme (and their encore – more of that later).

© Andy Staples

Right from the opening Spiritus sanctus vivicans vita by Hildegard of Bingen, sung by the two pure and perfectly blended sopranos from the back of the stage, followed by a (sadly but understandably short) excerpt from Pérotin’s Viderunt omnes, with its incredibly virtuosic weaving three tenor lines over a drone, the eight singers promised and delivered great skill and smooth blend, at the same time as their ability to characterise the music, text and individual lines when required. Josquin’s Ave Maria was given a soft, smooth bloom, but not at the expense of clear textual articulation. The ebb and flow of Josquin’s writing means that the musical lines largely dictate dynamics, and VOCES8 respected this. The only counter to this was the final O Mater Dei, when the music is more or less homophonic, so would usually lead to a fuller sound – yet here VOCES8 concluded Josquin’s masterpiece in a hushed and highly effective pianissimo. Mouton’s stunning Nesciens mater virgo virum is one of those pieces where time feels like it stops, with its slow harmonic pace and cascades of falling lines. VOCES8 exploited those falling lines beautifully, although this was the one place where the blend was not uniformly even, with occasional lines uncomfortably piercing the texture. Victoria’s Regina caeli was given a boisterous and joyful reading, leading to some pretty fast alleluias – Artistic Director Barnaby Smith had just described to Petroc Trelawny on stage how he feels the music is energetic and emphatic as well as beautifully melodic, and this certainly came out in their performance here. The same approach applied to their later rendition of Byrd’s Sing Joyfully – bright and joyful, without ever becoming aggressive.

Jonathan Dove’s Vadam et circuibo civitatem takes Victoria’s setting of the same text (from the Song of Songs), in particular a rising phrase over a 5th, and explores through repetition and increasingly insistent pacing the anguish of searching for lost love. Dove writes so well for voices, and uses rich harmonies, contrasting this with chanting from lower voices with wandering soprano lines, beautifully capturing a sense of anxiety and increasing frenzy. VOCES8 convey the rich, warm early clustered harmonies, as well as the repeated rising phrases and weaving lines, making this a highlight of their performance today.

Again, the Gloria from Lassus’ Missa ‘Bell’Amfitrit’altera’, with its two-choir writing, had a sense of energy throughout, building effectively to its joyful conclusion, and Palestrina’s Magnificat primi toni also had energetic text articulation, a dancing Gloria and a glorious final “in saecula saeculorum, Amen”. The very first entries here were a little shaky, but once going, the singers handled the exposed trio sections with great precision and expression.

Not yet 19 years old, Alexia Sloane won the senior category of the BBC Proms Inspire Young Composers’ Competition in 2018, and as a result, got to work with VOCES8 on her BBC commission, Earthward, premiered in this concert. In a brief introductory interview with Trelawny, she described how, considering today’s programme, she wanted to challenge the perception of the divine as a patriarchal white male figure. Setting her own text, which places the earth at its heart, she combines unison intoning, particularly on the opening phrase, “oh Earth”, with vastly spread and highly chromatic dissonant chords. Often starting from a unison note, the harmonies gradually spread, and she makes imaginative use of an intertwined bass duet on “gather and scatter”, and high ringing sopranos on “ocean”. The dissonance and chromaticism must have presented significant challenges for VOCES8, but the precision and confidence of their performance was highly impressive.

They closed their programme with another joyful work, Gibbons’ O clap your hands. Again full of energy and madrigalian lightness, they took evident delight in the antiphonal O sing praises, and the final winding Gloria led to a solidly emphatic Amen, bringing their highly impressive Proms debut to a glorious conclusion. Once BBC Radio 3 had left proceedings, Barnaby Smith announced their encore, taking the group slightly ‘off piste’ from the programme, and treating us to a warm, buttery rendition of Bogoroditse Devo, from Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil.