Edinburgh Fringe 2016
Any attempt to pigeon-hole this a cappella group is doomed to fail. The amazing variety of their repertoire and their superb vocal dexterity mark this female quintet out as la crème de la crème in the crowded a cappella space.
The Fringe is awash with a cappella groups, or so it seems. I can’t emerge from my reviewer’s lair at the Pleasance Dome without being assailed by absolutely charming young people thrusting flyers into my hands, imploring me to come and here something by Out of That, Inside Out, Upside Down or some other cutely entitled ensemble.
Don’t get me wrong, there is some fantastic music to be had from what are always well-drilled, well-presented four part harmony groups. But it’s all a bit, well, beige. The comfortable and the familiar, mainly from the pop world, pleasantly repackaged to the point where many of the tunes start to sound the same.
Papagena are the antidote to all this. Comprising three sopranos and two altos, their current show, Nuns ‘n Roses, sees them singing in German, Gaelic, Estonian, Bulgarian, Armenian, Latin and, just occasionally, their mother tongue of English. We get Bulgarian folk, Norfolk lullabies, traditional Estonian melodies, Armenian Orthodox Church music, a Scottish Cattle Call, some traditional Gaelic mouth music, some comic blues, 15th Century madrigals, a comic song entreating God to say yes – the list is endless. And never have I heard music by Katy Perry and Purcell as part of the same set. Oh, and we had what is probably the only known choral piece in honour of the art of vacuuming – Three Ways to Vacuum by Stephen Hatfield.
Singing complex harmonies in your own language is one thing, doing so in as diverse a range of tongues and dialects as those on display this afternoon (in the marvellous acoustics of St Andrew’s and St George’s West) is something else. But Papagena’s quintet have an extraordinary grasp of not only each language but the nuances required to give each song meaning. And no single voice dominates which ensures that the exquisite harmonies that feature in many of the arrangements can be appreciated to their full extent. Whilst there was only one solo (Lagan Love sung by the rich, creamy soprano voice of Suzzie Vango), you felt sure that any one of this extremely talented group could fill this cavernous venue with beautiful sound.
Quite how it was all stitched together I’ll never know. Conducting seemed to be done by telepathy and just an occasional twitch of an eyebrow on the part of one of the singers and pitch perfect starting notes appeared out of the ether without anyone appearing to do anything. Magic. That just about sums up the whole afternoon. A real hidden gem that needs discovering before they fly off somewhere else next Wednesday.