I heard Rachel Podger and VOCES8 in concert on 12/3/20 (it was live on 12/1/20). The concert was titled *A Guardian Angel.* VOCES8 had curated a marvelous eight-concert online series in the summer and fall and I leapt at the prospect of them doing a Christmas concert series.
I’d never heard of Rachel Podger but in the pre-concert intro she was billed as “The Queen of the Baroque Violin.” Who knew?
The concert opened with Podger playing “Es Ist Ein Ros’ Entsprungen” by Michael Praetorius. You might know this as “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” such a beautiful tune. Podger played the tune once when then VOCES8 sang it. As expected I was tearing up, it was so sublimely beautiful. Here's a highlight reel from the concert, which opens with excerpts from the opening set:
Podger played “Passacaglia ‘Guardian Angel’” by Heinrich von Biber. So gorgeous, with lots of inventive double stops on the violin, giving the illusion of more than one instrument playing. Her playing had what I look for in a Baroque performer, the ideal mixture of elegance and guts. She had some glamorous, virtuosic playing in this piece, I loved it. Von Biber did something unexpected near the end of the piece: a passacaglia is a piece built on a constantly repeating bass line, which usually means it’s the same sequence of chord changes. He kept the bass line notes the same in one late section but pivoted so that those notes were heard within a related major key instead of the established minor key. He went back to the minor key at the end. It was fascinating and surprising.
They sang two versions of the tune “Angelus Ad Virginem,” about Mary getting the news that she was pregnant with the Christ child. First they did an inventive (but not tricked out) version of the chant, arranged by the group. Next they did an anthem based on the tune by Hieronymous Praetorius. The piece was so elaborate, it was difficult to hear the tune buried in there. I’m actually not sure I did hear it, but I’ll take it on faith that it was there. Sort of like Mary did…?
“Maria Durch ein Dornwald Ging,” opened with the tenors and basses singing alone, without the upper voices. Their sound was dark and rich, this brief moment was one of the highlights of the concert. The slightly austere flavor of this piece perfectly set up the next piece, Mendelssohn’s “Denn er hat seinen Engeln befohlen über dir.” Oh dear LORD it was so warm and luscious, I was crazy for it. I guess I need to check out more Mendelssohn - - I don’t think of him as a particularly original composer, but jeez, this piece did some unexpected things. Here's the group rehearing the piece for a concert a few years ago. How cute to see them in T-shirts and jeans, often with their hands in their pockets:
“Men and Angels” by Alec Roth was the first piece on the program to feature Podger playing with the ensemble. It’s always interesting hearing a contemporary composer write for a Baroque instrument and a Baroque performer and Roth’s work wasn’t particularly convincing, it was rather pallid. The choral part was beautiful but stank of the 90s to me, it had a strong New Age vibe, like a Windham Hill recording or something you’d listen to while looking at a Magic Eye book.
Podger introduced the next set. She took three movements from Bach’s A minor partita for flute and transposed them down a whole step, since G minor is a more idiomatic key for the violin. She said the piece works very well for the violin, and I was skeptical, but she made it work. Why am I so skeptical? What purpose does it serve?
The three movements of the Bach were interspersed with pieces for the singers. Britten’s “A Hymn to the Virgin” was hushed and wondrous, always a treat to hear an English ensemble singing Britten. “The Three Kings” by Jonathan Dove was angular and a little spooky at the start, with a surprising “ants in the pants” section near the end. It was definitely interesting. VOCES8 commissioned Owain Park to write “Antiphon for the Angels” for this concert and it was a perfect finish. It showed off the singers and incorporated the violinist, but there was nothing pallid or tentative about his writing for her. Her music had fire and grit, and the interplay between the violin and the singers was thoughtful and engaging.
“Es Ist Ein Ros’ Entsprungen” by Michael Praetorius
“Passacaglia ‘Guardian Angel’” in G minor for solo violin by Heinrich von Biber
“Angelus Ad Virginem” chant arr. VOCES8
“Angelus ad Pastores Ait á 8” by Hieronymous Praetorius
“Passaggio rotto (from Other Ayrs, Preludes, Allemandes, Sarabands)” by Nicola Matteis
“Maria Durch ein Dornwald Ging,” trad. Arr. Stefan Claas
“Denn er hat seinen Engeln befohlen über dir” by Felix Mendelssohn
“Men and Angels” by Alec Roth
“Partita for Flute in A minor: I. Allemande” by J.S. Bach
“A Hymn to the Virgin” by Benjamin Britten
“Partita for Flute in A minor: II. Corrente” by J.S. Bach
“The Three Kings” by Jonathan Dove
“Partita for Flute in A minor: IV. Bouree Anglaise” by J.S. Bach
“Antiphon for the Angels” by Owain Park