Friday 15 April 2016

Precision and enthusiasm: the Gesualdo Six at St John's Smith Square

The Gesualdo Six
The Gesualdo Six
Gesualdo, Monteverdi, Schütz, Ligeti; Gesualdo Six; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Apr 12 2016
Star rating: 3.5

Italian madrigals, Ligeti & folksongs in a well constructed overview of the madrigal form

The Gesualdo Six – two countertenors, two tenors, a baritone and a bass, plus conductor, plus theorbo – are a very young group specialising in Renaissance polyphony, mixing in some modern works into their programmes. This was the second of three concerts at St John’s Smith Square and it focused on secular works. The first half of consisted of Italian madrigals by Gesualdo and Monteverdi interspersed with Ligeti’s unaccompanied Nonsense Madrigals (in English), and the second half featured some of Schütz’s Italian Madrigals and a selection of folksong arrangements from the four countries of the British Isles. 

It was a well-constructed programme sung with precision and enthusiasm, and it provided an interesting overview of the madrigal form. Spoken introductions would have been a welcome addition, especially as the information in the printed programme was quite tricky to navigate.

The Italian works were accompanied by Ryaan Ahmad, who was a late stand-in. In general the theorbo accompaniment gave the group a richer, warmer sound because the two countertenors tended to dominate the proceedings and the much of the time the tenor voices were masked by the conductor who stood right in front of them. Hence the balance was not as good as it could have been.

The group got into their stride with the Ligeti. These six pieces were composed in the 1980s and 90s and set to texts from Victorian children’s literature, including Alice in Wonderland and an alphabet song starting on an atmospheric pppp and going up to a crashing ffffff – which displayed an impressive amount of control and was enjoyed by audience and performers alike.

Gesualdo’s five-part Sparge la morte started off the second half of the concert. With only one countertenor and its dark – black, even – character, it was for me the most successful piece of the evening. The Schütz madrigals, meanwhile, required only one tenor and, though harmonically simpler, felt tentative: the energy sagged, the Italian was rather chopped and English, and we did not get enough of the variety the text required.

The concert ended with a varied Round-Britain trip and a further chance for some solos. The stand-out soloist was tenor Hiroshi Amako who had a gorgeous creamy sound. Finally, an encore: the only religious piece of the evening, Tomkins’ When David Heard, was one of those moments when time stands still in the concert hall, and a great advert for the group’s next concert at St John’s on 19th June.
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford

Felice primavera (Book I) Carlo Gesualdo (1566 – 1613)
Nonsense Madrigals György Ligeti (1923 – 2006)
1. Two Dreams and Little Bat
2. Cuckoo in the Pear-Tree
Sfogava con le stelle (Book IV) Claudio Monteverdi (1567 – 1643)
Nonsense Madrigals György Ligeti
3. The Alphabet
4. Flying Robert
Rimanti in Pace (Book III) Claudio Monteverdi
Nonsense Madrigals György Ligeti
5. The Lobster Quadrille
6. A Long, Sad Tale
Zefiro torna (Book VI) Claudio Monteverdi

Sparge la morte (Book IV) Carlo Gesualdo
Selection from Italian Madrigals, Op. 1 Heinrich Schütz (1585 – 1672)
O primavera (SWV 1)
O dolcezze amarissimi d’amore (SWV 2)
Fuggi o mio core (SWV 8)
Feritevi, ferite, virerete mordaci (SWV 9)
Folksongs from the British Isles
The Oak and the Ash Trad. English arr. Gordon Langford (b. 1930)
Oh my love is like a red, red rose Trad. Scottish arr. Simon Carrington (b. 1942)
Molly Malone Trad. Irish arr. Owain Park (b. 1993)
Suo-Gân (Lullaby) Trad. Welsh arr. Rupert Gough (b.1971)

The Gesualdo Six
Directed by Owain Park
Guy James, Pat Dunachie – countertenor
Joseph Wicks, Hiroshi Amako – tenor
Michael Craddock, baritone
Sam Mitchell, bass
Ryaan Ahmed, theorbo

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