After Silence: Remembrance, Devotion, Redemption, Elemental
Works for Choir including:

Ne Iscaris, Domine
Sestina; Lagrimi d’amante al sepolcro dell’amata
J.S. Bach
Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150
Hymn to St. Cecilia
Others by Jonathan Dove, Eriks Esensvalds, Fauré, Gibbons, William Harris, Marten Jansson, Mahler, Parry, Pärt, Stephen Paulus, Philip Stopford, Frank Ticheli, Paul Tschesnokoff, Eric Whitacre.

Voces 8
Academy of Ancient Music
Mary Bevan Soprano
Nick Deutsch Oboe
Barnaby Smith Director

Voces 8 VCM12
2 CDs, Full Price

The Review

This must be the ultimate choral concept album, over two hours of music divided into a quartet of roughly equal sections, dealing with four aspects of spiritual life and each containing one substantial work surrounded by complementary shorter ones. The styles range from the sixteenth century till now. Only the Bach and Mahler works have instrumental accompaniment but these never outnumber the eight voices of the group’s title.

I suspect one is really meant to listen to this in a darkened room with one scented candle and a monastic level of reflection – a sort of cross between meditation and a carol service. Probably my fault but I’m not sure I have the patience, despite the accomplishment of these musicians. After a while (let alone the silence of the collection’s title) I had the unkind thought that all music for eight voices sounds roughly the same, no matter who wrote it or when. Most of the music on the first disc is slow. The polyphony glides by like a summer brook gently going about its creditable business, pleasantly gloomy in the English anaemic style.

The great composers – Byrd, Monteverdi, Bach and Britten – rise majestically above the general parade and the performances here mean that outside the darkened room, these records contain some worth. Monteverdi’s astonishing lament in six parts – A Lovers Tears At The Tomb Of The Beloved – for the 18 year-old soprano, Caterina Martinelli, who died of smallpox at Mantua in 1610, alternates reverence with passionate and angry grief. The ten minutes of William Byrd ground the otherwise hodge-podge first section.

The arrangement for voices and oboe/cor anglais of the fourth of Mahler’s Rückert Lieder, I Am Lost To The World, oddly sounds more luscious than in its orchestral garb and, taken very slowly, is recorded with an acoustic that accentuates the resonance. The indulgence subdues, rather than enhances, its emotional force sadly: gorgeous but unexpectedly shallow. Barnaby Smith seems loathe to find a tempo any quicker than a pedestrian adagio. Much of the music he has chosen requires this but Britten’s sublime Hymn to St. Cecilia needs greater flexibility (and better diction so that Auden’s words, his ‘dear white children’, can shine through). So when the more vigorous verses of Bach’s setting of Psalm 25 come on, it is something of a relief to hear the music speed up. Even here, though, he is not exactly hectic. I suspect other interpretors (Koopman, Eliot-Gardiner, perhaps) would have more consistent energy. Nonetheless Bach triumphs. This is the most substantial work in the set (closely followed by the Monteverdi and the Britten) and benefits hugely from the seven players drawn from the Academy of Ancient Music who have the baroque in their fingers.

Of the contemporary pieces only Jonathan Dove’s Vertue and The Three Kings (with words from the unlikely source of detective story writer, Dorothy L. Sayers) come up to a sufficiently high standard. The rest are inconsequential and Eric Whitacre’s music, though much touted by Classic FM, has all the popularity and nutritional value of a pub chicken in the basket. Spare me! In the end the sad thing about this imaginative collection is that of the 128 minutes, only about a third is of music or performances that I will want to hear again and even then there are more effective versions in the market.