Voces8 - Equinox (VCM Records available Jan. 19)
"We've been having a great time touring all around. We've got a wonderful new soprano as well, Eleonore, and perhaps most excitingly of all, we have a very brand-new composer-in-residence, called Jonathan Dove."
That's what the British vocal ensemble Voces8 has been up to, according to Barnaby Smith, one of the group's founding members. At the heart of their latest recording, Equinox, is a song cycle written by Dove.
"We wanted to record Jonathan's piece, which is called 'The Passing of the Year,' and we had the opportunity actually to do that at Abbey Road Studios, recording in the same room as the Beatles on John Lennon's piano. So that was very, very exciting. And this particular piece, tracks the passing of the year, as the title suggests, with a series of seven poems.
"Probably the most virtuosic of the seven poems is 'Answer July,' where the piano part really is incredibly difficult. During the recording, Jonathan was saying, 'I thought I could play this when I wrote it,' and I think it gave him difficulties. And actually the choral parts, as well, are incredibly fast, very, very intricate and really beautifully written.
"The favorite of my tracks from this particular series is 'Ah, Sun-Flower!' And the reason I particularly like it is because of the way the guys sing the solo line at the beginning of the song. And actually much like the second track from the set, it's sort of the music opens up so it starts with just a single vocal line sung by our tenors and basses in unison. But then as the piece progresses, it works its way into an eight-part canon, again sort of beautifully showing how the sunflower's face opens and is so radiant."
So, we just talked about the secular side, but you open with a more sacred theme, and then the Christmas story also works its way in there. Would you like to talk about how that weaves into the opening of that whole theme?
"So really the theme of the album is based around cycles. So, we wanted to look at the cycle of the human soul, which, of course, to us as mortals is birth and death, in essence. So we began and closed the album with a text from the requiem 'In Paradisum.' After this, we chose to set a text about the Immaculate Conception, the annunciation, which is why it's particularly relevant to an early release in December, with a couple of very, very beautiful German carols, 'Es ist ein ros entsprungen,' which I'm sure many of your listeners will know. It's originally written or harmonized by Michael Praetorius, and we've made a new arrangement of that which sets a couple of beautiful solo voices from the group, including Eleonore, our new soprano, and our tenor, Sam.
"There's also 'Maria Durch Ein Dornwald Ging,' which is an Advent carol and very well known, especially in Germany. However, I had never heard an arrangement that was this beautifully done it's arranged by a German composer called Stefan Class, and it tells the tale of Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth shortly after the Annunciation. And there's a very, very beautiful literary motif. To begin with, Mary is walking through a forest of thorns, but as she passes those thorns in the third verse, they blossom into roses, and we think that that's of course symbolizing the Christ child blossoming in her womb."
And then the piece that bridges the sacred and the secular is 'The Ember Night,' by Graham Lack. I'm curious about how that works as that bridge, and what is an ember tide?
"It fits the theme perfectly because it talks about the ember nights, which are the nights that come on the quarters of every year. So it's derived originally from pagan rites, and the ember nights are the four nights in the year where the seasons pass from one to the other. And so we feel very fortunate that we had a piece written for us for this album and that it fits and ties up really the theme so wonderfully."
Equinox will be released in its entirety on Jan. 19. To hear more of my conversation with Barnaby Smith about this new recording, and what it's like to incorporate a new member into the ensemble, download the extended podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts, or listen above.
ResourcesVoces8 (official site)
Voces8: Equinox (Amazon)