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Reviews

16 Dec 2018

There is no rose: Gesualdo Six at St John's Smith Square

This concert of Christmas music at St John’s Smith Square confirmed that not only are the Gesualdo Six and their director Owain Park fine and thoughtful musicians, but that they can skilfully shape a musical narrative.

There is no rose: Gesualdo Six at St John's Smith Square

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Gesualdo Six

 

The programme that they presented was very similar, though longer, to that performed at Temple Church during last year’s Winter Festival , but with the items in a re-arranged order and with additional items interspersed, new relationships between musical works were articulated.

The singers made the most of the architectural space. A lone voice floated purely from the gallery at the start of Veni, veni Emmanuel, inviting first alto and tenor to join him in, then welcoming the full ensemble into the rejoicing: ‘Gaude, Gaude, Emmanuel.’ The supple polyphonic windings and the deftly negotiated harmonic progressions that followed had a smooth assurance which characterised the whole performance, and the tapered unison of the close was compelling. They moved segue into the plainchant Rorate Caeli, during which the ensemble processed through the nave; and then, moved on without pause, the vigorous and robust counterpoint of Michael Praetorius’ Nun Komm, der Heiden Heiland seeming to spring free from the poised chant.

The programme incorporated several traditional carols. Gaudete (arranged by Brian Kay), which had opened the lunchtime concert in Temple Church, here accompanied the procession through the nave which marked the recommencement after the interval. Park joined five of his ensemble for Praetorius’ arrangement of Es ist ein Ros Entsprungen, and here there was a lovely lyrical breadth. A deepening of the texture in the central verse was balanced by the freshness of the final verse, which depicts the new-born Christ as a ‘Flower whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air’, where James Guy’s countertenor melody floated above the ensemble hum with unaffected simplicity and sweetness, the phrasing beautifully eloquent.

There is no rose reduced the ensemble to three - alto, tenor, bass; somehow the trio sound seemed simultaneously lean and sumptuous, the pure clarity of Alexander Chance’s upper line placed against the freely moving lower voices. Coventry Carol followed segue, from the gallery, the tenor line imbuing vigour into the central verse which tells of Herod raging and slaying of the children, before another processed chant,Laetentur caeli brought the singers back together. In dulci jubilo as arranged by Bach allied a gentle lilt with a strong sense of spiritual purpose and musical direction.

Alongside the old we had the new. The concordance of dynamic, tone and rhythm at the pianissimo opening of Jonathan Harvey’s The Annunciation was impressive and this carol had a delicate preciousness, the sliding harmonies - perfectly tuned - suggesting the ‘strangest strangeness’ of the divine visitation and the homophonic melodiousness of the close conveying the rapture of the communion between angel and girl. Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s The Promised Light of Life was similarly tender of timbre, but more comforting in spirit, the ensemble voices swelling and receding with organic oneness; similar fluidity characterised Arvo Pärt’s Morning Star, the ebbs and flows of voices bringing to mind the softly pulsing star in the night sky, promising ‘everlasting day’.

I was impressed by the recent release, by Hyperion, of a collection of Park’s choral music and so it was good to have an opportunity to hear again Park’s own On the Infancy of our Saviour. The harmonic roving matched the initial questioning anxiety of Francis Quarles’ text which reflects on the child’s grace with bewildered hindsight of the betrayal to come, while the strong consonance of the closing episode seemed to swell from deep within the ensemble, blooming with the expressed certainty of faith. Such certainty is absent from Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Oxen’, but there is frail hope, and this was conveyed by the flowing continuity of the counterpoint in Jonathan Rathbone’s setting, particularly in the lower voices. Here, too, we had a compellingly well-projected narration of the poetic text - perhaps the slow tempo was advantageous in this regard, as elsewhere the group’s diction was not always so clear.

Masterpieces of Renaissance polyphony completed the programme. I had some misgivings last time I heard the Gesualdo Six perform Thomas Tallis’s Videte Miraculum, and they were not entirely swept away here. Again, the intonation was unsettled, the countertenor line seeming to tug away from the centre, and as the counterpoint did not blend into a seamless whole, so the unfolding episodes did not cohere convincingly. But, the performance became increasingly persuasive as Park pushed towards the close where the inner voices had compelling strength above the anchoring bass.

William Byrd’s Vigilate was a vigorous call to attention culminating in a florid final command, ‘omnibus dico: vigilate’ (I say to all: Watch.). And, the Bohemian composer Jacob Handl provided an example of late-Renaissance music from Europe, Canite tube (Blow the trumpet), which buzzed with festive energy and uplifting verve. Then, to Italy, for Andrea Gabrieli’s Hodie Christus natus est in which Park joined his singers. The full ensemble exhibited wonderfully relaxed and finely crafted phrasing as the voices worked in pairs and threes, running through the scalic lines and pushing towards the jubilant triple-time floridities of the ‘Alleluia’ close.

Claire Seymour

The Gesualdo Six: Owain Park (director), Guy James (countertenor), Alexander Chance (countertenor), Tom Castle (tenor), Josh Cooter (tenor), Michael Craddock (baritone), Sam Mitchell (bass).

Trad. arr. Lawson - Veni, veni, Emmanuel, Anon. (Plainchant) - Rorate Caeli, Praetorius - Nun Komm, der Heiden Heiland à 6, Harvey - The Annunciation, Trad. German harm. Praetorius - Es Ist ein’ Ros’ Entsprungen, Owain Park - On the Infancy of our Saviour, Tallis - Videte Miraculum, Cheryl Frances-Hoad - The Promised Light of Life, Byrd -Vigilate, Trad. arr. Brian Kay - Gaudete, Arvo Pärt -Morning Star, Anon. - There is no rose, Trad. - Coventry Carol, Anon. (Plainchant) - Laetentur caeli, Handl - Canite tuba, Gabrieli - Hodie Christus natus est, Praetorius arr. Bach - In dulci jubilo, Jonathan Rathbone - The Oxen

St John’s Smith Square, London; Friday 14th December 2018.

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