I heard VOCES8 on 12/28/20 (it was live on 12/23/20), a concert from their Live From London Christmas concert series. They opened with a gorgeous Bach chorale, “O Jesulein süß, o Jesulein mild.” Their sound and their blend were, of course, perfect, but the glory of their performance was in the phrasing and the the dynamic shadings. They took the shortest of pauses before launching into “Gabriel’s Message,” that was exciting.
Next was a couple of Renaissance pieces, “Puer natus in Bethlehem” by Samuel Scheidt and “Hodie Christus natus est” by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. Barnaby Smith introduced the two pieces as being “ebullient,” and that they were! The Scheidt seemed to encourage the members of the group to not be so delicate and careful and really throw it out there. I became a fan of Sweelinck in my first years of college, we did a few fabulous pieces of his in Concert Choir. I had sung “Hodie” many times but hadn’t remembered that it was my man Sweelinck who wrote it.
The next two pieces, “Corpus Christi Carol” and “Lully, Lulla, Lullay” were dedicated to members of the audience who had a hard time in 2020 and found the holidays particularly difficult. Both pieces were hushed and lovely.
The centerpiece of the program was Praetorius’s “Magnificat,” a setting of Mary’s song of joy when she found out she was pregnant with the son of God. Praetorius alternated between solo chant and eight-part counterpoint. VOCES8 decided this wasn’t interesting enough and placed movements from two other Praetorius Advent pieces (“Joseph, Lieber Joseph Mein” and “In Dulci Jubilo”) in between the movements of the “Magnificat.” It probably seemed like a good idea to them, but it sounded muddled to me. I’d rather have heard the “Magnificat” by itself, rather than have the two other pieces shuffled into it.
Here's a glorious performance by Siglo de Oro doing the Magnificat without the extras:
The next three songs (“The Oxen,” “Christmas Lullaby,” and “Silent Night”) were set in the stable where the baby Jesus was lying in a manger. They were pretty but rather forgettable. But I prefer “forgettable” to “cringeworthy,” which was the case with the swingy final two numbers, “Let It Snow” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” The arrangements were expertly made and the singing was generally well done, but their performance style was just barfous. I think I would love them on a CD but watching them was not pleasant.
“O Jesulein süß, o Jesulein mild,” BWV 493 by Johann Sebastian Bach
“Gabriel’s Message,” trad. arr. Jim Clements
“Puer natus in Bethlehem” by Samuel Scheidt
“Hodie Christus natus est” by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck
“Corpus Christi Carol” by Benjamin Britten arr Harvey Brough
“Lully, Lulla, Lullay” by Philip Stopford
“Magnificat Quinti Toni” by Hieronymous Praetorius incorporating “Joseph, Lieber Joseph Mein," "In Dulci Jubilo”
“The Oxen” by Jonathan Rathbone
“Christmas Lullaby” by David Pickthall arr. Christopher Moore
“Silent Night,” trad. arr. Thomas Elwin
“Santa Claus is Coming to Town” by John Coots & Haven Gillespie arr. Jim Clements
“Let It Snow” by Julie Styne arr. Jim Clements