The last twelve months have seen the passing of two giants of the choral sphere, Jonathan Harvey and John Tavener. Both, in different ways, were pioneers, creating the wild, weird and wonderful. Not all of it will outlive them, but miniatures such as Tavener’s The Lamb or Three Hymns of George Herbert and Harvey’s visceral The Angels have already proved indelible.
With a storm surge of sub-Eric Whitacresque creations threatening to flood the a cappella world (believe me, I’ve had to hear them) it can seem as if we’re in the midst of the bland leading the bland. Peters Edition Christmas concert suggested otherwise with an array of new works by Baltic, Russian and British composers presented by Voces8 and new choir Lumina.
The evening began with Voces8 in a side chapel singing Morten Laurdisen’s ever-popular O Magnum Mysterium, leaning into its aching suspensions with pleasing precision. Next up was a set from Lumina, conducted by Rupert Gough, beginning with Latvian Eriks Esenvalds’s Stars. Choir members created their own glass harmonica, whose high, rippling streams tangled with the singer’s own voices, producing a cloud of ambiguous harmonics while bass voices moved in blocks below. This is potentially a stand-out work, though here it failed to flow, as did some of the attractive but less distinctive offerings from Vytautas Miskinis and Rihards Dubra, whose Stetit Angelus combined hieratic ululations over low melody. A dynamic and delineated performance of the Esenvald’s Long Road, with Voces8 joining from a side chapel, revealed the reason: it was conducted by Stephen Cleobury, who provided an instant lift to Lumina’s performance, balancing out lines and finding rhythmic sweep and coherence in this emotional two-choir tour de force. Esenvalds combines voices with free-form keening sounds and chimes, whose clusters grace the score like distant howling of wind and wolves.
Cleobury returned for an organ interlude, presenting first Bach’s Choral Prelude on Meine Seel’ erhebt den Herren, followed by Judith Bingham’s austerely intriguing meditation upon it. Bingham’s glacial palette melted into Bach’s warm, flowing vigour in his Fuga sopra BWV on the same chorale.
Given the controversy over the British Composer Awards this week, it was good to see Bingham wasn’t the only female composer represented: the evening culminated in two premieres by Roxanna Panufnik and Alexander Levine sung by Voces8. In Panufnik’s sumptuously chromatic Celestial Bird she responds intuitively to the individual voices this group, daring to push them higher and twist the dissonances that bit tighter in a sensuous yet highly controlled work. Panufnik’s discipline and warmth also came through the witty Christmas. A fast, rhythmic figure drives this ‘anti-carol’, which lists Christmas in eight different languages, dispatched with aplomb by Voces8. They also sang the premiere of Alexander Levine’s lavishly melismatic A Prayer of St Augustine, in which florid solos move against ostinati and vivid suspensions creating a dynamic sense of exchange. The Russian-born Levine, composer of the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostsom (Tenebrae/Signum) is a force to be reckoned with in this arena.