31 Aug 2020

Fading: The Gesualdo Six at Live from London

"Before the ending of the day, creator of all things, we pray that, with your accustomed mercy, you may watch over us."

Since the 4th century, the service of Compline - also known as the Night Prayer or Prayer at the End of the Day - has, with quiet reflection, marked the ‘completion’ of the day. Those present at the service, which asks for God’s blessing and calls upon the Lord for protection through the coming night, depart in silence and return home to sleep in peace.

The latest recital in VOCES8’s Live from London festival series saw The Gesualdo Six present music associated with the Compline service and works which shared a subdued but reassuring quality of the sacred works, setting independent texts which illuminated the prevailing theme, Fading. Old and new intertwined. The earliest work, the solo chant, ‘O Ecclesia’, by Hildegard von Bingen (1098- 1179) marked the mid-point of the concert, with high tenor Joseph Wicks’ poised declaration, “O Ecclesia, your eyes are like sapphire”, seeming to focus the light that had shone from the preceding works and to shine a pathway for those compositions that would follow. The five-part motet,Te lucis ante terminum, which was included in Thomas Tallis’ Cantiones sacrae of 1575 initiated the sequence of valedictory reflections. The refined delineation of the polyphonic phrases, an unwaveringly even blend, meticulously precise intonation and an inner confidence which enabled the conversations to unfold with an almost hypnotic logic, characterised this performance of Tallis’ motet and the other Renaissance repertory presented. But, there was no sense of ‘sameness’: each work had a character and colour of its own. The ensemble’s technical artistry may seem ‘flawless’ but it is not ‘faceless’.

William Byrd’s lullaby ‘My sweet little baby’ found director Owain Park taking a singing role at the centre of the ensemble, and adding to the bass richness which resonated upwards to countertenor Guy James’ high-lying line. At times it seemed that there must be more voices than there really were: the ‘lulla’ repetitions became velvet threads tying themselves into an intricate, unravellable whole, the final cadence, like a delicate brushstroke, completing a ‘perfect’ work of art. In Media vita, by Nicolas Gombert the six voices were propelled by independent purpose, the phrases varied and vigorous. At times, the driving but controlled energy from the bass voices seemed to surge through the texture and power the higher voices; elsewhere, small groups of inner voices spilled outwards, the six lines drawing strength and invention from each other. In Luca Marenzio’s madrigal, Potrò viver io più se senza luce, the counterpoint was more relaxed and easeful, and with simple, restrained gestures Park crafted a beguiling fluency. In contrast, Illumina faciem tuam by Carlo Gesualdo strived urgently forwards, the ensemble balance sustained but the voices searching and expanding. In the final appeal - “Domine, non confundar, quoniam invocavi te.” (Let me not be confounded, O Lord, for I have called upon thee) - a wonderfully idiosyncratic chromatic ‘nudge’ upwards in highest voice part lifted singers and listeners heavenwards, towards the enlightenment.

In programmes which juxtapose past and present, it’s always interesting to consider the balance between contrast, complement and cohesion. Here, after Gesualdo’s harmonic twists and turns, the harmonic layering, from the top down, at the start of Look down, O Lord, by Jonathan Seers (b.1954) followed naturally; there was enormous rhythmic power in the climbing phrases which culminated in punchy, bright chord clusters before an unwinding through chromatic arguments led to unison resolution. The spiritual resonance of Seers’ motet was strong, and the same was true of Park’s own Phos hilaron (Hail, gladdening Light) which was composed in 2017 for Trinity College Choir. It has three sections but we heard only the central ‘The song of the light’. The consonant harmonies of the ensemble, placed in a curve behind soloist James, embraced the countertenor with a warm sonic glow as his gentle melodies unfolded freely. Arvo Pärt’s Morning Star, composed for the 175th birthday of Durham University in 2007 and which sets a prayer inscribed above the tomb of St Bede in Durham Cathedral was similarly contemplative. But, there were stronger rhythmic currents, too, as the repetitions of the short phrases and pulsating ostinatos - delineating a fifth in the lower voices and reiterating “morning star” - created an ‘elasticity’ between the voices which then sprung upwards together with the arrival of “the promise of the light of life”. Consonant homophony consoled at the close, with the opening of “everlasting day”.

This Live from London programme took its title from The Gesualdo Six’s third recording, Fading, which was itself named after the second of the four Arabesques which Joanna Marsh (b.1970) composed for The King’s Singers in 2015. Fading sets a poem by the Iraqi poet Abboud al Jabiri, who likens an ageing woman to a bird shedding plumage. The shifting harmonic nuances and slowly oscillating vocal lines became musical ripples, gentle but insistent, and gradually accrued inner strength through the urgent questions about where the dove, which is turning grey, will go: “will a deaf sparrow offer her a perch to sing?” The Wind’s Warning by Alison Willis won the 21-and-over category of The Gesualdo Six’s second composition competition, and sets ‘The Wind’ - a poem which is believed to be the last written by Ivor Gurney, and which presents bleak imagery of “life’s torn tree” and a desperately swiftly moving Time, blown through “blank eternity” by a blind wind. Haunting, slightly astringent vocalisations at the start give way to a more lyrical central section and here, as the two countertenor lines entwined it was good to hear Andrew Leslie Cooper’s slightly lower, more ‘coloured’ voice in dialogue with James’ cooler purity.

There were two works for four voices, both somewhat bittersweet songs about love. In Marjal aega magada by the Estonian Veljo Tormis (1930-2017), the homophony and rhythmic regularity of the lullaby’s folk-inspired phrases should have been comforting soft breaths, but while the ebb and flow was even, the calm was destabilised by restless, unresolving harmonies. The high tessitura of Tormis’ work contrasted with the low darkness of O little rose, O dark rose by Canadian composer Gerda Blok-Wilson (b.1955). The Gesualdo ‘Four’ created a tender consonance and a plump cushion of sound, but there were deep swells within the soft folds of the latter expressing a restless passion: “Your soul a seed of fire, I am the dew that dies in you, In the flame of your desire.”

The soothing repetitions of Josef Rheinberger’s Abendlied finally extinguished the musical light: “Bide with us, for evening shadows darken, and the day will soon be over.” Dylan Thomas may have urged us to ‘rage against the dying of the light’, seeking human strength and endurance from within, but, in the works presented by The Gesualdo Six, such strength was inspired by faith and ensured by God’s protection. The recital did not so much fade as uplift: and with the image of a single candle glowing on our screens, we were taken not into darkness but towards light.

The next Live from London concert will be broadcast on 5th September, when VOCES8 will perform a programme entitled Choral Dances.

Claire Seymour

The Gesualdo Six: Fading

Owain Park (director), Guy James & Andrew Leslie Cooper (countertenors), Joseph Wicks & Josh Cooter (tenors), Michael Craddock (baritone), Sam Mitchell (bass)

Live from London, broadcast from the VOCSE8 Centre; Saturday, 29th August 2020.