I heard I Fagiolini in concert online on Jan 3, 2021 (it was live on Dec 24). It was the last concert in the VOCES8 Live From London Christmas concert series. I’d heard I Fagiolini in the VOCES8 spring/summer concert series - - they had six singers in that concert and they had expanded to twelve or eight for this one.
Here's a highlight reel from the concert:
They opened with *Four Carol-Anthems* by Herbert Howells (sung by twelve singers, a cappella). Howells was a 20th century English composer. His music has a fiercely individual character - - he sounds nothing like my beloved French composer Olivier Messaien but he has a similar Messaien mix of unusual harmonies grounded in a traditional Western foundation. The first anthem, “Long, long ago” had all of this in spades, it was gorgeous, surprising, bewitching.
I Fagiolini had done a few goofy things in their previous concert and they had more hijinks in this one. They finished the first piece, the camera showed the ensemble shot from above. The camera stayed still and the conductor, Robert Hollingworth walked away, out of the view of the camera. We then saw a Christmas tree with a chair next to it. Hollingworth walked into view, wearing a plaid robe over his tuxedo, sat on the chair, and read an excerpt from “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by Dylan Thomas. It was charming.
We were back in the concert hall and a small group of instrumentalists walked in and sat down and they all performed the Kyrie and Gloria from Charpentier’s *Messe de Minuit,* a midnight mass. Is there anything more elegant than French Baroque music? You don’t need to answer that question. There were a number of solos, sung my members of the ensemble, and it’s always startling to hear the juicy, vibrant solo voices which just a few minutes before were part of a delicious choral blend. I mentioned the number of singers before, so I’ll give you an update on that topic: the Howells was done with twelve singers, the Charpentier with eight. Do you suppose the four singers who were cut out were insulted?
Hollingworth did another reading from “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” I guess I need to read that next Christmas, it was adorable! The choir sang the next of Howells’s anthems, “Here is the little door,” a high English sort of chilly warmth. And oh Lord they sounded so beautiful. Then another couple of movements from the Charpentier Mass. Switching back and forth between the Howells and the Charpentier gave a stronger flavor to each, it was a genius decision of programming.
More Dylan Thomas. This excerpt featured a tam-o-shanter, a false nose, and a dead bird by the post office. I guess that’s what Christmas was like in Wales.
“Sing Lullaby,” the third Howells anthem, had a forward movement that was missing in the other two movements, that was nice to hear. More Charpentier, crisp and supple. The Sanctus was a particular joy - - the music seemed to smile. Here's the Sanctus sung by a group in Cleveland:
The next bit of Thomas featured uncles “breathing like dolphins.” The Agnus Dei of the Charpentier had a peculiar start: the orchestra played a graceful, lilting introduction and one of the basses spoke the Latin text. The orchestra played a bit more, the chorus sang the text, more orchestral gracefulness, and the bass spoke the text again at the end.
The final movement of the Howells, “A Spotless Rose,” was warm and cozy. Ditto the final reading of the Thomas, which ended with the little boy going to bed, looking out the window at the snow and the lights in the windows, and falling asleep. The last few sentences overlapped with the wordless women of the chorus singing the opening of the final piece, “First Snow” by Bo Holten. I imagine you’re tired of hearing me say this, but I was in tears.