Friday 6 February 2015

Ensemble Plus Ultra

Ensemble Plus Ultra
Guerrero, Lobo, Belling; Ensemble Plus Ultra; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Dec 20 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Guerrero re-imagined in concert of ancient and modern from young vocal ensemble

The Christmas concert (Saturday 20th December) from Ensemble Plus Ultra at St John Smith Square focussed on the motet 'Prudentes Virgines' by Francisco Guerrero, the mass based on it by Alonso Lobo, and its reinterpretation by Hew Belling. Supporting this were works by contemporaries of the Siglo de Oro (the Spanish Golden age) - Cristobal de Morales, Alonso de Tejeda and Tomas Luis de Victoria, alongside Christmas music by Michael Praetorius and mediaeval carols.

St John Smith Square Winter Festival is now in its 29th year. Ensemble plus Ultra have not been going quite that long – only since 2001. But their talent has made sure that they have made a name for themselves and their newest album was awarded five stars by the BBC Music Magazine.

Although firmly in the early music camp, this does not mean that they are unreceptive to new ideas, experimenting with obscure composers, and charting further afield, in a quest to show the world the wonders of the Renaissance.

Bass Jimmy Holiday, who sang with the Clerks in their Phantom voices project, and mezzo-soprano Clare Wilkinson, who sang earlier that same evening with Fretwork, were joined by Grace Davidson, soprano, David Martin, countertenor, while William Balkwill and Simon Wall shared the tenor.

This concert gave the ensemble a chance to showcase their new album 'From Spain to eternity' released to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of El Greco's (the renowned Spanish painter, sculptor and architect of the Spanish Renaissance). Born Doménikos Theotokópoulos in Crete in 1541, El Greco studied art in his home city before moving to Venice in 1567, then to Rome in 1570, before settling in Toledo, Spain in 1577, where he lived until he died in 1614.

Although his individuality of style made him some enemies at the time, and his popularity waned during the Baroque era, his art has stood the test of time. A revival in the 19th century started by king Louis-Philippe of France's Spanish Museum, and then again in the 20th century with an exhibition of his work in Madrid, has ensured that today his name has been immortalised.

While the name of Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) is also well known, the compositions by Cristobal de Morales (1500 -1553) and Alonso de Tejeda (1540-1628), who replaced Alonso Lobo (1555-1617) as chapel master at Toledo Cathedral in 1605 where El Greco painted 'The disrobing of Christ', are perhaps less commonplace. Their contribution to Renaissance music has been better understood due to the work of Michael Noone from Boston College who was involved in the recovery of previously unknown works hidden in Toledo Cathedral which he published in 2003 as 'El Códice 25 de la catedral de Toledo'. This link continues with Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599) who, as a child, studied with de Morales in Toledo and the circle is completed by Lobo who based many of his mass settings on anthems by Guerrero – including the example heard in this concert.

The performance by Ensemble Plus Ultra was superb. They brought out the differences in styles between the composers – the Guerrero full of duets with the inner parts filling in movement, the Tejeda with its cantus firmus in the soprano line supported by movement and harmony from everyone else.

Hew Belling (1986-) was commissioned by Ensemble Plus Ultra to also write a work based upon the Guerrero motet. The composer had in his mind “Guerrero, suffering plague and consumed by fever, is immersed in an ice bath.” Consequently Belling slowed down a recording of the Guerrero motet six times and pulled out bits that he heard.

The result 'Pru... Vir...' was an exciting realisation of the harmony used by Guerrero while focussing on the minutiae of singing – fricatives and consonants, sliding on and off pitches, and something which sounded like a slowed down vibrato. Belling managed to keep the character of the Renaissance, but without its predictability, and so cleverly transformed one form of minimalism into another.

Ensemble Plus Ultra are currently touring Spain, but will be back for the Christmas Festival at St John's Smith Square in 2015.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover
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