Wednesday 29 March 2023

After Byrd: HEXAD Collective launches its concert series exploring hidden music for voices

The HEXAD Collective at Holy Trinity, Minchinhampton, December 2022
The HEXAD Collective at Holy Trinity,
Minchinhampton, December 2022
Piers Kennedy, William Cornysh, Anna Semple, William Byrd, Raffaella Aleotti, Claudio Monteverdi; HEXAD Collective; Crypt of the Priory Church of the Order of St John
Reviewed 28 March 2023

Launching its After Byrd series, the young vocal ensemble pairs Byrd with contemporary works and more in vibrant, engaged performances

The HEXAD Collective, a seven-strong vocal ensemble founded in 2019 by Daniel Gethin, went underground last night (28 March 2023) to launch its concert series, After Byrd: hidden music for voices. In the Crypt of the Priory Church of the Order of St John, HEXAD (Danni O'Neill, Anna Semple, Daniel Gethin, Gopal Kambo, Sebastian Hill, Simon Grant, Piers Kennedy) were joined by Hugh Cutting (countertenor) and Daniel Murphy (lute, theorbo) for a programme of Piers Kennedy, William Cornysh, Anna Semple (whose work featured on the 2022 Christmas album by Somerville College Choir, see my review), William Byrd, Raffaella Aleotti, and Monteverdi.

The crypt is the only surviving Medieval part of the Priory Church. Originally part of the home of the Order of St John in Clerkenwell, the church survived the order being disbanded at the Reformation but was badly damaged during World War Two. The surviving elements have been partially restored above ground, but below ground, the crypt is a wonderfully evocative space with a fine acoustic (though the temperature was a bit challenging). You can explore further at the modern museum on the adjacent site.

Crypt of the Priory Church of the Order of St John (Photo Museum of the Order of St John)
Crypt of the Priory Church of the Order of St John (Photo Museum of the Order of St John)

HEXAD is an eight-person vocal ensemble which includes two composers Anna Semple and Piers Kennedy, so their repertoire moves between Early Music and contemporary works written for them. The programme was book-ended by a pair of works by Kennedy and Semple from a project last year that HEXAD did around psalm texts first sung at the 1953 Coronation; intended as a Diamond Jubilee celebration, the project has taken on more resonance.

So, we began with Piers Kennedy's O Taste and See, but before you start humming the RVW setting, Kennedy used far more words from the psalm to create a substantial piece that ended with 'O taste and see how gracious the Lord is'. For six voices, the music had an intriguing neo-Medieval texture in the way Kennedy used voices in parallel, often in open intervals; vigorous and vibrant, it was an intriguing piece. Next came William Cornysh's Ah Robin followed by Anna Semple's Thou Shalt Know, which is a contemporary reflection on the Cornysh and followed directly on from it. Finely and soberly and finely sung by three men from HEXAD, Ah Robin proved an interesting foil to Semple's piece, for six voices. Semple started with a simple hummed line, overlaid with just fragments of the Cornysh text, creating something new from the old. Gradually becoming more rhapsodic, the music moved further and further from its source to striking effect.

Next came a group of works by Byrd. First, his tiny offertory motet, Terra Termuit (sung by the five men from the collective) in a vigorous and dramatic performance. Then came Hugh Cutting and Daniel Murphy (lute) in Byrd's Ye Sacred Muses, Race of Jove, and rather aptly on the day that the death of James Bowman was announced, this was Byrd's lament on the death of Thomas Tallis. The acoustic of the crypt was such that for once, the lute accompaniment was sufficiently prominent in the mix and Cutting and Murphy gave us a fine, intimate account of the song, Cutting singing with lovely tone, supple line and fine words. A strong account of Byrd's five-part motet Viri Galilaei came next, followed by something of a curiosity, Byrd's O Salutaris Hostia. This seven-part motet is a strict canon which gets progressively odder and odder as Byrd does nothing to modify the remarkable dissonances that result.

The collective's new concert series features other hidden music besides that of William Byrd. Another featured composer is the 16th-century nun Raffaella Aleotti (c1570-after 1646), though so little is known about her that there is even confusion as to whether there were two musical sisters, Raffaella and Vittoria, or whether Raffaella was the name taken when Vittoria took the veil! The music, however, is very fine indeed. 

HEXAD sang her five-part motet Ascendens Christumin Altum, a fine work that was clearly in the Palestrina mould, given a very present and very engaged performance. Throughout the evening the singers from the collective showed that their performances were about rather more than simple beauty of line and texture. Hugh Cutting and Daniel Murphy (theorbo) then reappeared for Monteverdi's Si Dolce e'l Tormento, in an intense, vibrant performance where, for all the shapely beauties of Cutting's line, the words counted for much. We had more Aleotti next, with her seven-part motet Ego Flos Campi. A short, vigorous piece, she created interesting textures from her use of two unequal choruses.

Finally came Anna Semple's O Clap Your Hands, another of the Coronation psalm-text works. Here, Semple took the text literally and the work opened with clapping. She clearly delighted in creating complex rhythmic layers, and then challenging her performers by asking them to sing odd notes as well as clapping! These interlocking layers of rhythms developed into rhythmic vocal structure, before the clapping returned. A very striking and appealing work.

HEXAD's After Byrd series continues underground with a concert on 1 May 2023 in the crypt of St  Etheldreda's Church, EC1N 6RY with music by Byrd, Aleotti, Anna Semple, Piers Kennedy and Richard Rodney Bennett, and then on 20 July 2023 at the Brunel Museum with music by Byrd, Saulana, Aleotti, Leonarda, McDowall, Anna Semple and Piers Kennedy.

Full details from the HEXAD Collective's website.

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