Cardiff Festival of Voice, Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff, 10 June 2016
Those familiar with Kate Bush’s songs ‘Never Be Mine’ and ‘Rocket’s Tail’ will be aware of the unearthly harmonies found in the Bulgarian vocal tradition. Tonight, this precious sound is present in the twenty-six-strong Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares, who present a selection of devotional, contemporary and traditional a cappella songs in the grand surroundings of Llandaff Cathedral.
Wearing bright, traditional costumes with flower bloom headdresses, the first notes sung draw a level of shock and awe as Western ears work to grasp the complicated, Byzantine harmonies that ascend like incense to the 12th century roof above. The complex, crossing and quashing intervals are intoxicating, and many of the near-capacity audience seem delighted to be nonplussed by the otherworldly beauty.
The programme consists of a number of short songs and some a little lengthier, conducted superbly by Dora Hristova. Performed by ensembles of varying size drawn from the full choir, the majority of whom take solos in turn across the evening, with each showing bursts of virtuosity in their individual ways. Some harmonies feel more familiar, with one reminding me of Purcell and a few reminiscent of the Welsh chapel tonic sol-fa tradition, before soaring off once again to more intangible climes with an occasional use of underlying drone notes.
In this setting, an Anglian Church in the heart of Wales that was once overrun by Oliver Cromwell’s troops, these exotic voices join the echoes from centuries of Western petition with their not-so plain song. As well as sombre devotional songs, variations in style and providence include courtship songs too, making a lively, entertaining evening. Four soloists expressively tell of Tedora sleeping, dreaming sweetly until a branch breaks, waking her up. (She’s sad now.) The voices express a clarity making every song of the highest pleasure. Another encourages a young man to keep his mind on his work, instead of courting the girls.
In an evening overflowing with riches, a stunning highlight is ‘Zaplali Se Planinata’, (translated as ‘The Mountain Is Burning’) that tells of an Eagle mother trying to save her young from the flames with her burning wings. With a heart breaking performance, the voice of soloist Radka Alexova cracks with emotion atop close harmonious support from the full choir. The sound undulates and falls, suggesting the fine bird at the prey of the burning eddies in her desperate plight.
Pulling strongly on the emotions too, Daniel Spassov sings with a plea to the Lord for wings of a swan so he can fly over his homeland to see his mother again.
Every new song brings wonder and delight. ‘Kalugerine’ visualises a joyous dance scene about a love-struck monk wishing he had met the girl of his desire before he took his vows. An occasionally-used motif, where precise vocal lines melt briefly away into orchestrated street chatter before resuming with a snap, is wonderfully entertaining.
Spanning the better part of a month, Cardiff’s inaugural Festival of Voice has brought a richly diverse series of performances together, all with vocal expression as the common denominator. As a vibrant highlight amongst many superlative events this month, this astonishing experience will stay with me for many months.