‘A Guardian Angel’, Rachel Podger’s new project with the vocal ensemble VOCES8, and performed at Milton Abbey Music Festival last night, is a collaborative extension to her 2013 solo violin recording of the same name. Key pieces from the original album are framed by choral works, creating a narrative of angelic miracles and protection.

Rachel Podger © Theresa Pewal
Rachel Podger
© Theresa Pewal

Two simply sung prayers – Orlando Gibbons’ hymn setting Drop, drop slow tears, and the plainchant Pater Noster – provided an effective mental preparation for Heinrich Biber’s extraordinary Passacaglia from his Mystery Sonatas, the “Guardian Angel” of the programme title. Podger made light work of Biber’s harmonic and technical complexities, weaving them into a protective veil of silken threads, shrouding us from anything else that might be going on. This was not just angelic, but fairy-tale music too: a protective spell that couldn’t be broken so long as the music didn’t stop. Podger’s sweet tone was serene through the slower parts, enhanced with the tiniest jewel-like ornaments, whilst the more energetic passages were warmly passionate.  

Podger’s other solo contribution to the first half, three short pieces by the Italian Baroque virtuoso Nicola Matteis offered an intensely joyful response to the messages of the Christmas angels sung by VOCES8. The plainchant Angelus ad Virginem brought Christmas sparkle, followed by a weightier chorus of angels in Hieronymus Praetorius’s 8-part Angelus ad Pastores Ait ending with Alleluias that alternated between an expansive sense of the eternal and cheerful dancing.

VOCES8 spent most of the first half singing from the back of the church, which worked very well for the plainchant, and in Praetorius’ motet the parts were clearly delineated so that despite the sound bouncing around the church, everything came across. Mendelssohn’s Denn er hat seinen Engeln befohlen über dir was a little blurred however, although the deeply prayerful ending was very beautiful, and Rachmaninov’s Bogoroditse Devo (Hail Mary) was simply far too slow and lacking in passion: this was an annunciation delivered by a rather chilly and distant angel.

James Macmillan’s penitential Domine non secundum peccata nostra created an extremely effective combination of solo violin and singers. Podger’s arpeggios looped around the sustained vocal lines, suggesting the agitations of a sinful soul. Macmillan’s music is well-suited to the pure, clean tone that VOCES8 do so well, and their basses have plenty of power so that the cries of “Domine”, punctuated by jagged violin lines went straight to the heart.

Bach’s Partita in A minor BWV1013 was written for flute, but stylistically it transfers very well the violin: the stringed instrument can power through long phrases that sap the breath; the pedal notes and big jumps in sections of the Corrente and the highly chromatic diversions at the end of the Allemande felt very natural coming from the violin. Podger floated through the Allemande, using lots of subtle rubato to create gorgeous shapes in the theme, and piling up tension in the harmonic complexities. Podger swept gracefully through the upward theme of the Corrente and the final Bourée anglaise tumbled out in a rollickingl profusion of ornaments. One of the loveliest moments of the evening though was the magical stillness of Podger’s third movement Sarabande, the violin floating ethereally, and as in the Biber, she added a dusting of diamante ornaments.

The four Bach movements were broken up by choral pieces that drew on the life of Christ. Jonathan Dove’s setting of a poem by Dorothy L. Sayers The three Kings caught the medieval air of the text; the normal order of the Kings’ gifts are reversed here, so that the music began from mournful, intertwining sopranos for myrrh through to a glittering joy of the oldest King who brings gold. VOCES8 gave a warm glow to Giovanni Gabrieli’s Angelus Domine descendit in which the angel calls us to see Christ’s empty tomb, investing the motet with a sincere emotion, and their bounce in the Alleluia led nicely into the Bach bourée.

An interruption and re-start caused by a broken string was handled with good humour as the programme closed with a piece by Owain Park, commissioned for the Guardian Angel project. Antiphon for the Angels combines a Latin text by Hildegarde of Bingen, translations by Barbara Newman and an evening hymn by St Ambrose, creating a mystical reflection for singers and violin on the terrible glories of heavenly light, with a thought for the fallen angels for whom it was all too much: Lucifer fell and the violin drew the vocal parts back to the pulsing, ecstatic “Spirited light” section. Park’s own style feels simultaneously ancient and contemporary, with a cold, open harmonic language and a violin part that paid homage to the baroque. Inevitably there was an encore: Schubert’s Ave Maria clearly pleased the audience, but for me, the light of the setting sun at the end of Park’s piece, enhanced by the violin disappearing into the ether would have been a perfect ending.

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