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Lux Aeterna: VOCES8 and The VOCES8 Scholars

  • January 2, 2024
  • 4 min read
Lux Aeterna: VOCES8 and The VOCES8 Scholars

Kings Place
Fenella Humphreys, violin
Matthew Sharp, cello

Did VOCES8 know, whenever it was that they chose the theme of ‘Lux Aeterna’ (Eternal Light) for this Kings Place concert, how remedial that theme would feel by the time the performance came around? Perhaps it’s just me, but the onset of shorter days and bad weather feels more abrupt and punishing this winter, so I was glad to cosy up in a packed-out hall for 90 minutes or so, to be whisked away to places that weren’t freezing cold and incessantly rainy.

The first stop, in Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna, was outer space, through its association (in my mind at least) with the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Its eerie chords drifted over to us from the singers standing high on the balcony above the stage, the ghostliness of the piece enhanced by not really being able to see their mouths moving from such a distance. It was a good opener: the singers’ technical prowess shining through the close harmonies and complex polyphony; and their standing on high also established as a theme the relationship of sound to space. (The concert was part of Kings Place Sound Unwrapped series, whose provocation is the spatial dimensions of live music.) At one point later in the concert, conductor Barnaby Smith, encouraged the audience to join in to create the full surround-sound effect, which I’m not sure they did. Either way, I felt all this would have been better achieved in a building with an echoey acoustic; it didn’t quite come off in the modern hall.

The ensemble was joined variously by violinist Fenella Humphreys and cellist Matthew Sharp. The first of their collaborations was a version of Bach’s Partita No.2, the movements interspersed with the composer’s chorales (the ones thought to have inspired the partita). Before it began, Smith warned us that the mash-up had gone down, in previous performances, ‘like marmite’. I feel generally ambivalent about marmite but I felt quite strongly that I didn’t like this. One of the pleasures of Bach’s writing for solo instruments is the opportunity for the listener to deploy their sonic imagination to colour in the harmonies implied by the single line. However, the audience is denied that opportunity when the choir has taken the pens and is doing the colouring for them. The overall effect was a bit confused, and it seemed at times as though soloist Humphreys, her playing light and agile, was dragging the choir along behind her.

The same was true of Caroline Shaw’s And the Swallow, a gorgeous work for choir, but here semi-obscured by a specially-written solo violin part inspired by Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. The idea, I think, was to blend two musical evocations of birds in flight, but in this instance, my ear was struggling to land on either the full-bodied choral texture or the decorative violin flourishes, I felt it would have been better to let swallows be swallows and larks be larks.

The highlight was Vasks’ Plainscapes, a cinematic work for violin, cello and choir, which evokes the landscapes of its composer’s native, Latvia. The soloists’ playing was crystalline and the choir ethereal. There’s a moment in the piece where the music breaks down suddenly and the performers whistle like birds. Handled badly: excruciating bathos; handled well, total magic. Thankfully, in this instance it was the latter, testament to a kind of musical surface tension that can hold moments like this together. I felt for the first time the collective holding of breath in an otherwise shuffle-prone audience. The person next to me let out an audible sigh when it was over, whether out of delight or relief or both, it wasn’t clear.

The evening closed with a vocal setting of Elgar’s Nimrod for the choir on its own, which was lovely, thanks largely to its clarity of texture – something I think the whole concert would have benefitted from more of. On the way out, I reflected that the overall effect was one of slight overembellishment, a Christmas tree with too much tinsel. That said, the individual elements taken separately were superb and the programme was perfect escapism for a wintery weeknight at a time when there seems not much else to be cheerful about.

About Author

Lucy Thraves

Lucy works for the musicians’ charity Help Musicians. She previously wrote for and edited the magazines Classical Music and Music Week, and continues to write in a freelance capacity today. She lives in London.

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