Saturday, 9 March 2019

From Renaissance to Contemporary: the Gesualdo Six at Cadogan Hall

The Gesualdo Six (Photo Ash Mills)
The Gesualdo Six (Photo Ash Mills)
Tallis, Byrd, Joby Talbot, Veljo Tormis, Gesualdo, Alison Willis, Gyorgy Ligeti, Luca Marenzio, Palestrina, Sarah Rimkus, Gerda Blok-Wilson, Owain Park, Jacob Beranek, Joanna Marsh and Rheinberger; The Gesualdo Six; Cadogan Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 7 March 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Celebrating its fifth birthday, the young all-male ensemble in a highly crafted, eclectic programme

The Gesualdo Six vocal ensemble as just celebrated its fifth birthday and the six men, Guy James, Alexander Chance, Joseph Wicks, Josh Cooter, Michael Craddock, and Sam Mitchell, and director Owain Park, brought their programme Passion and Polyphony to the Cadogan Hall as part of the Choral at Cadogan series on 7 March 2019.

It was a programme of contrasts, ancient and modern, sacred and secular, with and eclectic mix of Tallis, Byrd, Joby Talbot, Veljo Tormis, Gesualdo, Alison Willis, Gyorgy Ligeti, Luca Marenzio, Palestrina, Sarah Rimkus, Gerda Blok-Wilson, Owain Park, Jacob Beranek, Joanna Marsh and Rheinberger, including the first performances of the winning entries in the ensemble's recent composition competition.

We started with Byrd and Tallis, a pair of sacred pieces, Tallis's Te luce ante terminum and Byrd's Miserere mihi Domine. The group makes a highly concentrated sound, with a sense of the character of individual voices, different voices coming and going in the mix according to the polyphonic writing. The group's sound was quite counter-tenor led, with the distinctively focused timbres of Guy James and Alexander Chance, this latter showcased in the plainchant of the Tallis.

A pair of contemporary secular pieces followed. Joby Talbot's The Wishing Tree was written for the King's Singers in 2002,(the first of three different pieces originally written for this group) a setting of Kathleen Jamie. A high energy piece which used repeated overlapping jagged rhythmic motifs to striking effect, though the hocket nature of the writing meant that the words were rather lost. Veljo Tormis; Lase kiik kaia (Let the cradle swing) comes from his Four Estonian Lullabies. The two tenors, Joseph Wicks and Josh Cooter passing lovely melodies from one to another over rocking figures.

The group's first ever concert featured, of course, Gesualdo and at Cadogan Hall they included three of the composer's Tenebrae Responsories, Tristis est anima mea, Tenebrae factae sunt and O vos omnes, vibrantly communicative performances with moments of great control, intensity and eruptions of violence, which brought out the drama of the music.

Alison Willis' The Wind's Warning, setting Ivor Gurney's last poem, won the Over 22 Category of the Gesualdo Six's 2019 Composition Competition. It combined non-vocal techniques with quirky harmonies to create a striking evocation of the bleakness of the poem. The first half ended with three of Ligeti's Nonsense Madrigals, written for the King's Singers in 1988. We heard Cuckoo in the Pear Tree, Flying Robert and The Lobster Quadrille. Wonderful pieces which combined complexity of construction and a fascinating with older musical techniques such as passacaglia, with a vein of sheer madness. The result, complex and bravura but simply crazy too. It was a shame we couldn't hear the whole set.

More madrigals after the interval, Marenzio's Potro viver io piu senza luce, and Palestrina's Io son ferito, ahi lasso, vibrant yet intimate performances with the individual voices giving a sense of detailed colour to the lines, and really bringing out the words.

Sarah Rimkus' wrote My heart is like a singing bird for the Gesualdo Six's 2010 Composition Competition. A setting of Christina Rosetti, a very effective piece starting out as a counter-tenor duet over gentle choral textures. Canadian composer Gerda Blok-Wilson's O Little Rose, O Dark Rose sets Canadian poet Charles Roberts for just four voices in a simple folk-like piece. Phos Hilarion by the Gesualdo Six's director, Owain Park, gave us evocative Byzantine chant over a gentle choral texture.

Jacob Beranek's Dietrich Bonhoeffer setting, Abendgebet, won the under 22 category of the Gesualdo Six's 2019 Composition Competition. Beranek used traditional harmonies in interesting ways to create some striking textures. And Brahms' Bach-inspired motets seemed to be an inspiration, in fact I did wonder how the piece would sound if sung by a full choir?

Joanna Marsh wrote Arabesques in 2015 for the King's Singers, and we heard Seeds in Flight from it, a setting of an English translation of an Arab poet, a rather lovely piece with a fascinating use of some fabulously scrunchy harmonies. Finally a gently lovely account of Josef Rheinberger's Abendlied.

The programme was very well received and we were treated to an encore, Arvo Part's Morning Star.

This eclectic programme made a terrific showcase for the talents of the Gesualdo Six as they moved with ease from Renaissance to Contemporary music, though I could have wished for more longer items, it would have been nice to hear Ligeti's madrigals and Joanna Marsh's Arabesques complete.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • The Children's Hour: intimate and delightfully casual, Gareth Brynmor John and William Vann at Pizza Express Live - concert review
  • Haydn's The Seasons from Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra  (★★★★★) - concert review
  • Virtuosity and intimacy: Flauguissimo duo's A Salon Opera  (★★★½) - CD review
  • Political piano and terrific technique: Adam Swayne's (speak to me): new music, new politics (★★★★★) - CD review
  • Neapolitan revival: Rossini's Elizabeth in a rare staging from English Touring Opera  - opera review
  • Glitter and sparkle: The Merry Widow at English National Opera (★★★★) - opera review
  • Creating a contemporary choral tradition in Ireland: Desmond Earley and The Choral Scholars of University College Dublin  - interview
  • Dame Emma Kirkby's 70th birthday concert at the Wigmore Hall (★★★★★) - concert review
  • A very modern Robin Hood: Dani Howard's new opera at The Opera Story (★★★★) - opera review 
  • Sparkling delight: Coloratura Offenbach from Jodie Devos (★★★★)  - CD review
  • Celebration time: Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen coincided with the 140th anniversary of the Grand Théâtre de Genève (★★★★★) - Opera review 
  • Trapped in the underworld with a surly teenager: Gavin Higgins & Francesca Simon's The Monstrous Child  (★★★★½) - opera review 
  • Home

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