Sunday 2 September 2012

In the dark - Platinum Consort

Until we were handed a leaflet before  the Prom on Wednesday, I’d not come across the Platinum Consort before, but their concert at Kings Place on Saturday 1 September sounded intriguing so we went along. They are an 8 person vocal ensemble, founded in 2005 by their director Scott Inglis-Kidger. Their programme, In the Dark, was based on their recent debut CD, which was themed around Tenebrae. The group mix renaissance polyphony with contemporary pieces and have worked with composer Richard Bates since their founding, so that the concert included two of Bates’s pieces and a piece by James MacMillan alongside music by Anerio, Lotti, Victoria, Lassus, Gesualdo and Purcell.

The make quite a vibrant sound, with each of the young singers using quite full voice, but the overall impression was of a supreme attention to line and to blend. The resulting sound is immediately attractive and seductive.

Their approach worked best in pieces with a fine sense of line, so that Purcell’s Hear my prayer came off with haunting beauty. Similarly in Victoria’s Versa est in luctum and Ecce quomodo moritur they responded to the music’s vibrant lines and innate passion.

The selection of items was quite eclectic, with a mix of settings of Tenebrae Responsories with other pieces on a suitably gloomy theme. In the first half the two early pieces were Aneri’s Chrisus factus est and Lotti’s Crucifixus a 8. In both pieces, the chromaticism and suspensions were finely tuned and the performances elegant and beautifully moulded. But the composers more demonstrative passion seemed to elude the singers and I found the performances a little cool.

Lassus’s Tristis est anima mea was nicely contrasted with Gesualdo’s setting of the same Responsory. In the Lassus the group was beautifully in control and conveyed the feelings in Lassus’s setting well. In the Gesualdo they again caught the chromaticism and unnerving shifts of harmony without quite turning it into the heart-wrenching music that lies at the heart of Gesualdo’s art.

Richard Bates has written a number of pieces for the ensemble. His motet, In the Dark, setting words by George Gascoigne, is a luscious piece full of rich harmonies and almost jazz-inspired chords. But a certain piquancy to the harmonic language renders the work interesting and makes it stand out.

Bates’s language is essentially tonal, but with a wide spread of harmonic language, which prevents his melodic flair from conventionality. His Tenebrae was written for the choir in 2009. It sets six Tenebrae Responsories for Good Friday. In his settings, Bates responded to the Responsories structure, using a solo soprano as well as small groups of singers.

The textures Bates used were varied and interesting and the piece is finely constructed. But Tenebrae Responsories are highly charged texts and I did not think that Bates’s response was strong enough. The music seemed to skate over the surface of the words.

Quite what could be achieved with familiar words was shown by the final piece in the group’s programme, James MacMillan’s Miserere which sets the words of Psalm 51 which are best known in Allegri’s setting. The work was first performed in 2009 by the Sixteen. In it MacMillan uses a wide range of textures and techniques to convey the power of the words. Though there are highly complex sections, including extended improvisation and a terrific climax, MacMillan constantly returns to simplicity and clarity to bring out the meaning of the text, managing to imbue individual small gestures with powerful meaning.

The Platinum Consort’s performance was an incredible achievement, especially as the work is written for chorus rather than vocal ensemble, leaving the eight singers with little room to manoeuvre. Under Inglis-Kidger’s direction they achieved a performance of great power which transcended any of the work’s technical difficulties.

Kings Place is not necessarily the most sympathetic concert hall for vocal ensembles to perform in. The acoustics are remarkably clear, and not very resonant but with a certain coolness. This means that not only do they lack the benefit of the warm reverberation that is usual particularly for the early pieces, but that the acoustics leave nowhere to hide.

The group’s achievement in performing in this environment were tremendous, clearly the hall did not disguise various small imperfections in the singing, occasional uncertainties of tuning and less than perfect entries. But the overall impression was of a nicely honed machine which could deliver smoothly beautiful music.

A second problem with the hall, one which I have noticed with other choral groups, is that it does not respond well to pressure, so that louder passages can sound uncomfortable. There were moments in the evening when the singing felt too loud for the hall, when you felt that the singers were performing for a rather bigger venue.

The programmes that were on sale included all of the words, always useful when performing texts which are not necessarily familiar. But the hall’s organisers seem to have decided to go for effect and turned the lights down low except for the stage, leaving the audience unable to follow the words.

The programme reflected exactly the programme of their CD and I did think that introducing a few extra items might have been a compliment to the audience, as it was we had Byrd’s Ave Verum as an encore, stunning.

This was a highly imaginative concert with some very fine performances. Next time I hope to hear the group in a slightly more sympathetic acoustic, but they showed just how finely adjusted their singing is.

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