CLASSICAL NOTES: Nick Boston tunes into the best classical music

Nick Boston August 28, 2022


A highlight of the 2019 Brighton Early Music Festival was Voice’s Hildegard Transfigured, with music by and inspired by St Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). The three singers (Emily Burn, Clemmie Franks & Victoria Couper) have been singing together since they were at school, and it shows – the effortless blend, despite their distinctive individual voices, and the precision of their combined ornamentation and sense of line is highly impressive, whether in the long, mellifluous lines of Hildegard’s souring antiphons, or in the virtuosic rhythmic demands of the contemporary companion works on this disc.

The suite that gives the disc its name, Hildegard Portraits, by Laura Moody (b.1978), consists of seven short movements that set texts from Hildegard’s letters, rather than from her devotional writings. In Humility, Emily Burn’s pure tone ‘flies on the wind’, in contrast to the more earthbound spoken text in which Hildegard describes herself as ‘a poor little woman’.

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Sermon is frankly quite scary, as the fervent tirade to the clerics of Cologne is delivered in gabbled fury, and the finale of the set, The Living Light, is a masterpiece of virtuosity, with its repetition, complex rhythms and hypnotic clashes. Elsewhere, each singer gets their own solo take on Hildegard, with Emily Burns ringing out above the soft drone in O virtus sapiente, Clemmie Franks’ rich, fuller tone giving warmth to O orzchis ecclesia, and Victoria Couper’s variety of bright tone and delicate ornamentation particularly effective in O mirum admirandum. In Tim Lea Young’s (b.1975) Three Wings: pt 1, written for the trio, the three watery lines weave and shift, with the vocal range spread wide across the voices.

Stevie Wishart has had a huge influence on these singers, so it is fitting that several works by her, some specifically arranged by Voice, appear here. The almost electronic, hocketed (where individual notes in a figure or line are split between voices) rhythms, combined with a soaring slow line in Aseruz trium vocum, and the multi-tracked spatial effects explored in O choruscans lux, as well as Wishart’s arrangements of some of Hildegard’s pieces, serve to show her influence, but also the range and virtuosity of this young ensemble. And they even get to explore folk and jazz timbres in Emily Levy‘s (b.1980) How sweetly you burn, with its opening plaintive callings, slides and bluesy turns, and the fade away on the text ‘never fade’.

Quite frankly, this is an astonishing display, both in terms of strong interpretations of Hildegard’s evocative music, and as a demonstration of virtuosic vocal talent in the contemporary works – highly recommended!

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And singer Victoria Couper crops up on another great new release, this time from Musica Secreta, directed by Laurie Stras. As a close supporter of the ensemble, I have to declare an interest in promoting this here, but it so worth the recommendation. Mother Sister Daughter explores music drawn predominantly from two Italian convents, Santa Lucia in Verona and San Matteo in Arcetri, uncovered by Stras in her research. And it was particularly her discovery of records in the latter, also the home of Suor Maria Celeste Galilei, Galileo’s daughter, that gave rise to much of the previously undiscovered music here.

The six female voices here are joined by Claire Williams (organ), Alison Kinder (bass viol) and Kirsty Whatley (harp). The music is rich and varied, and the performances are tender yet commanding. Two gloriously high-voiced sets of Vespers of St Clare, and one of Vespers of St Lucy are joined by works by Leonora d’Este, as well as Brumel and Mouton. The disc ends with The Veiled Sisters, a new composition for the group by Joanna Marsh (b.1970), which juxtaposes two texts, one modern and one 17th century.

The texts contrast a woman looking outwards into the light with the journey of a young woman into life in a convent, and the texts are sung concurrently, with high ringing voices contrasting the sombre lower lines, joined by the organ. The more modern choral dissonances exist within a sound world that still sits well with the rest of the disc’s repertoire, and it provides a striking end to the collection.


Jeneba Kanneh-Mason

The Worthing Symphony Orchestra perform Rossini, Dvorak‘s New World’ Symphony, and¬†Rachmaninov‘s Piano Concerto No. 2, with Jeneba Kanneh-Mason (piano) (2.45pm, Sunday, ¬†September 4 at Assembly Hall, Worthing). For tickets, CLICK HERE

Brighton Early Music Festival returns in October, but they kick things off at the end of this month with a preview screening of their film of Francesca Caccini’s colourful and witty opera La liberazione di Ruggiero, filmed in the style of early film pioneer Georges Méliès. (8pm, Thursday, September 29, St George’s Church, Brighton). For tickets, CLICK HERE

Baroque Collective Singers

The Baroque Collective Singers, directed by John Hancorn, present the world premiere of Out Of My Head by Orlando Gough in outdoor venues around Lewes, in a series of flashmob-syle 20 minute performances Рcheck their website for final details (Saturday, September 17, from 2pm). For tickets, CLICK HERE

For more reviews, comment and events, CLICK HERE

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