A Guardian Angel
Rachel Podger, violin
VOCES8, Barnaby Smith, director
19 October 2018
For the 13th season of the Brecon Baroque Festival, Artistic Director and violinist Rachel Podger has chosen the theme ‘Angels and Archangels’, and in this first concert of the weekend, specifically music inspired by the concept of the those heavenly beings as guardians. The programme ‘A Guardian Angel’ has been developed by Podger in collaboration with the vocal ensemble VOCES8; they premiered it in Bristol and London earlier this year and are touring to the Canterbury Festival and then to the Netherlands in November. The music for solo violin included in the programme is also on a the 2013 album from Podger, Guardian Angel.
Clearly, groups of musicians cannot reasonably be expected to create a new programme for each occasion, and indeed, it is good for audiences in different places to have the opportunity to hear innovative work such as this. In the sixteenth century in England and Italy music for viols and voice was common, but nowadays the combination of vocal ensemble and solo violin is little heard.
In this concert violinist and singers created musical textures new to my ears. It opened with Podger alone on a low stage at the crossing of the cathedral, playing the melody of Orlando Gibbons’ Drop, drop, slow tears, and answered by the singers in a distant part of the building, mortals responding to the angel, though in tones so sublime they could themselves have been part of the heavenly host! In the Pater Noster chant which followed, the tenors and basses of VOCES8 sang in a unison so exact it was impossible to identify the separate voices. The musical baton was passed back to Podger for Biber’s Passacaglia ‘Guardian Angel’ from his Mystery (Rosary) Sonatas. It was as if the poised simplicity of the disembodied voices created a space for the violin to breathe and sing, and I could imagine the improvisations which Podger wove over the ostinato line of this work to be the flutterings of angel wings in the tower of the cathedral above.
So began the musical and spiritual journey of a concert of quite superb playing and singing, with lovely tone, faultless intonation and wonderful ensemble. However, the effective playing out of the notion of call and response on which this programme is predicated, both between the singers and between violin and singers, was limited by the acoustics of the building and the physical disposition of the audience. After singing the chant Angelus ad virginem – including one verse with a lovely newly discovered three-part harmony – the singers moved into view at the high altar for Hieronymous Praetorius’s elaboration. This antiphonal setting really requires physical separation of the two quartets in order for the musical exchange between them to be fully appreciated.
Without such a separation this and other polyphonic pieces in the programme – by Schütz, Monteverdi and Gabrieli – were a glorious welter of sound, but it was difficult for the audience to appreciate their subtleties. When the singers moved to the crossing they had their backs to a substantial portion of the audience, who must – from then until the end of the concert – have heard even less of the detail than those of us in the nave. I did wonder whether the two quartets could have moved into sideways positions for these pieces, so as to be more evidently singing to one another and making clearer the call and response nature of this antiphonal writing, and the textures within it.
Rachel Podger’s solo violin playing with which the choral works were interspersed was always luminous. The dances of J S Bach’s Partita for Flute BWV 1013 – transposed down a tone for violin, for which Podger contends it could equally well have been intended – were light and suitably angelic, in contrast to the more earthbound, though never heavy, vocal pieces. I particularly enjoyed Jonathan Dove’s The Three Kings, which was commissioned by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge for their service of Nine Lessons and Carols in 2000, familiar from that context and wonderfully transparent when sung by just eight singers.
Also very striking, and for me the most moving music of the evening, was James Macmillan’s Domine non secundum peccata nostra, a penitential setting for Ash Wednesday and one of only two pieces in the programme actually written for voices and solo violin. The variety of the writing was remarkable, including striking strong pizzicato chords on the violin in answer to vocal emphases, and a radiant ending. I think Macmillan has written some of the most powerful choral work of our time, and whatever one’s own beliefs his strong faith shines through in his music.
When Rachel Podger’s violin joined the singers as one of the voices in Tallis’s O Nata Lux, and again in the setting of When David Heard by Thomas Tomkins, I was less convinced. For me the timbres of the violin and the voices did not marry as harmoniously as in the Macmillan, and in the Tomkins when the phrase ‘Absalom my son’ is passed from voice to voice I felt that there was something important missing from the texture.
The concert ended with a piece by the young composer Owain Park, Antiphon for the Angels, commissioned by VOCES8 and Rachel Podger for this collaboration. The piece sets texts by St Ambrose, credited with promoting antiphonal voices in sacred music, and the mediaeval mystic Hildegard von Bingen. It starts with a familiar-sounding hymn tune and departs on a journey of disparate passages, in which Podger and her violin evidently represent the guardian angel and the surrounding voices the mortal souls on their journey. At the end the hymn tune reasserts itself before the violin climbs back into heavenly heights. Maybe on repeated hearings the work will give up more of its meaning; it did not immediately reveal a musical integrity to me.
An encore of the J S Bach/Gounod Ave Maria effectively and suitably highlighted Rachel Podger’s virtuosity, with VOCES8 surrounding her violin-playing with a vocal halo.
This musical journey was ambitious. Some parts of it worked tremendously well, others less so. But better to venture than to stay within safe bounds, better to challenge the listener’s preconceptions, better to make us all reflect on what we hear. That I applaud. And the music was without exception performed beautifully and at the highest level.
Header photo of Rachel Podger and VOCES8 with Barnaby Smith (credit: Desireé Ayton).
Cath Barton is an English writer who lives in Wales. Her prize-winning debut novella The Plankton Collector is published by New Welsh Review under their Rarebyte imprint. Cath is on the 2018 Literature Wales Mentoring programme, working on a collection of short stories inspired by the work of Hieronymus Bosch. https://cathbarton.com @CathBarton1