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<em>Gesualdo Six</em> at Temple Church (Temple Winter Festival)
15 Dec 2017

Temple Winter Festival: the Gesualdo Six

‘Gaudete, gaudete!’ - Rejoice, rejoice! - was certainly the underlying spirit of this lunchtime concert at Temple Church, part of the 5th Temple Winter Festival. Whether it was vigorous joy or peaceful contemplation, the Gesualdo Six communicate a reassuring and affirmative celebration of Christ’s birth in a concert which fused medieval and modern concerns, illuminating surprising affinities.

Gesualdo Six at Temple Church (Temple Winter Festival)

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Gesualdo Six

Photo credit: Ash Mills

 

Startling us from our pre-concert chatter, the six singers, led by musical director Owain Park, commenced Brian Kay’s arrangement of the traditional carol at the east end of this glorious late 12th-century church, which was built by the Knights Templar. Then, leaving behind the impressive stained glass of the east windows, they processed through the rectangular chancel, resting in the pointed arch which connects Gothic and Norman parts of the church. The rhythmic tugs and sways of Gaudate were initially complemented by a virile timbre, though subsequent verses offered calmer contrast, before baritone Michael Craddock launched into his solo verse with a confident swagger worthy of a Chaucerian story-teller. A unison clarion rang the piece to a close.

The subsequent items were eloquently introduced by Park, who inspired evident confidence in his singers: his gestures were minimal but efficient; the singers’ eye-contact and obviously pleasure spoke tellingly.

The complex arrangement of Luther’s chorale , Nun Komm, der Heiden Heliand (Now come, saviour of the heathen) by Michael Praetorius throws many challenges at the performers and the Gesualdo Six chose to tackle these by emphasising the strength and character of the individual voices within the ensemble, in order to highlight the vigour of the counterpoint, although the intonation of the whole took a little while to settle.

These Cambridge choral scholars came together in 2014 for a performance of Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday in the chapel of Trinity College and so the Gesualdo Six was born. The English choral tradition and its extant institutions, in which the singers have learned their craft, seemed both an asset and limitation here, and throughout the programme. First, this music is clearly and persuasively ‘in the blood’; and there is an assured balance of blended mellifluousness with soloist narrative. But, diction was sacrificed to beauty of sound; consonants often disappeared, and vowels were bent into uniformity.

However, such consistency has its uses! The programme juxtaposed the traditional with the modern and the Gesualdo Six switched between the two with admirable ease. The sweetness of Jonathan Harvey’s The Annunciation was tempered by harmonic piquancy that seemed almost modal in flavour. Likewise, the exploratory chromatic inflections of Tallis’s Videte Miraculum spoke of modern concerns. In the former, solo voices fluently exchanged the melody, setting the words of Edwin Muir, against a gentle but firm background hum; and while, again, I’d have liked more textual definition - which would have given the contrast between homophony and counterpoint stronger meaning - the ‘deepening trance’ of the close was expertly crafted.

Praetorius’s arrangement of Es ist ein Ros Entsprungen offered more familiar musical fare, and an opportunity to enjoy the contrast of the crystalline countertenor solo of the outer verses with the richer hues of the lower voices, firmer of presence, in the middle verse. The crafting of the pianissimo fade into silence at the close was exquisite, symbolising infinity: ‘uns das verleith’. Park’s own On the Infancy of our Saviour was similarly beguiling, hovering in homophonic enunciation, then swelling with quasi-zealous melismatic rapture, though once again I wished for more textual definition. Francis Quarles’s sentimental images of childhood - of the ‘Saviour perking on thy knee!’, ‘nuzzling’ in virgin brest, with ‘spraddling limbs’, and going ‘diddle up and down the room’ - may be rooted in the pragmatic fact that he and his wife Ursula Woodgate had eighteen children, but such images are still whimsical and remarkable in the context of the virgin birth.

The Gesualdo Six repaired to the circular nave, beside the towering decorated spruce at the west end of Temple Church, for the linch-pin of the performance: Thomas Tallis’s Videte Miraculum, in which the plainchant is both woven into the texture and used to underpin the structure through solo reiteration. One could not fault the ease with which Park shaped the grand architecture of the contrapuntal branches, nor the evocation of awed reverence; but, I did feel that the ensemble needed a weightier bass. The countertenors exhibited the occasional tendency to drift sharp and Craddock and bass Sam Mitchell did not exert the gravitational pull to reign them in to an anchored centre - not that this is a criticism of the individual singers, but additional numbers would have helped.

Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s The Promised Light of Life followed - in what must have been an arrangement as the original is for TTBB: though who could complain when the countertenors’ soft, echoing ‘Christus’ summoned the silvery sheen of the ‘morning star’ which St Bede’s prayer celebrates. This was a hypnotic conjuring of peace and everlasting assurance.

The singers became compelling story-tellers in Herbert Howells’s Here is the little door. Parks relished the quasi-theatrical setting of Frances Chesterton’s ambivalent text: exaggerating the vocal vitality - ‘lift up that latch, of lift!’ - and the blazing sheen of ‘Our gift of finest gold’. But, there was real drama, and perhaps disquiet, in the juxtaposition of the ‘keen-edged sword’ of gold and the ‘Myrrh for the honoured happy dead’, while the withdrawal of sound with the line ‘Gifts for His children, terrible and sweet’ anticipated the awed reverence at the closing sight of ‘such tiny hands/ and Oh such tiny feet’.

William Byrd’s Vigilate shook us from wondrous contemplation, though: ‘Watch ye’! shuddered with rhythmic vibrancy and attack - ‘nescitis enim quando dominus domus veniat’ (for you know not when the lord of the house cometh). Park again exhibited a masterly command, conveyed unfussily, of the architectural majesty of this motet and the balancing of, and transitions between, different moods were expertly handled. The final cry - ‘omnibus dico: vigilante’ (I say to you all: Watch) - had me bristling with attentiveness.

Lawson’s arrangement of the traditional carol Veni, veni, Emmanuel was beautifully delivered, the varying combinations of ensemble and solo voices, and increasing harmonic complexity, executed with confident and consummate musicianship. Jonathan Rathbone’s setting of Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Oxen’ brought the concert to a close: the slow tempo, ambient humming, and flowering of homophony into more complex counterpoint, all pointed to the ambivalent hopefulness of Hardy’s verse. We were left with the tentative but expectant wish of the poet: ‘I should go with him in the gloom./ Hoping it might be so.’

Though the stunning venue and sonorous vocal ambience had combined to mesmeric effect, the noisy interruption of an overhead helicopter briefly forestalled the encore. But, the dulcet performance of Away in a Manger, which allowed us to enjoy the warmth and easy fluency of Sam Mitchell’s bass, briefly lulled us to forget the buses rattling down Fleet Street and the black cabs chuntering over Waterloo Bridge. This was a lovely festive musical banquet.

Gesualdo Six ’s first recording will be an album of English renaissance polyphony, due for release by Hyperion in spring of 2018.

Claire Seymour

The Gesualdo Six : Owain Park (director), Guy James & Alexander Chance (countertenors), Gopal Kambo & Josh Cooter (tenor), Michael Craddock (baritone), Sam Mitchell (bass).

Trad. arr. Brian Kay - Gaudete; Praetorius -Nun Komm, der Heiden Heiland à 6; Harvey -The Annunciation; Trad. German, harm. Praetorius -Es Ist ein’ Ros’ Entsprungen; Park - On the Infancy of our Saviour; Tallis - Videte Miraculum; Frances-Hoad - The Promised Light of Life; Howells -Here is the little door; Byrd - Vigilate; Trad. arr. Lawson - Veni, veni, Emmanuel; Rathbone - The Oxen.

Temple Church, London; Thursday 14th December 2017.

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