Temple Winter Festival: the Gesualdo Six

Startling us from our pre-concert chatter, the six singers, led by musical
director Owain Park, commenced Brian Kay’s arrangement of the traditional
carol at the east end of this glorious late 12th-century church,
which was built by the Knights Templar. Then, leaving behind the impressive
stained glass of the east windows, they processed through the rectangular
chancel, resting in the pointed arch which connects Gothic and Norman parts
of the church. The rhythmic tugs and sways of Gaudate were
initially complemented by a virile timbre, though subsequent verses offered
calmer contrast, before baritone Michael Craddock launched into his solo
verse with a confident swagger worthy of a Chaucerian story-teller. A
unison clarion rang the piece to a close.

The subsequent items were eloquently introduced by Park, who inspired
evident confidence in his singers: his gestures were minimal but efficient;
the singers’ eye-contact and obviously pleasure spoke tellingly.

The complex arrangement of Luther’s chorale , Nun Komm, der Heiden Heliand (Now come, saviour of the heathen)
by Michael Praetorius throws many challenges at the performers and the Gesualdo Six chose to tackle these by emphasising the strength and
character of the individual voices within the ensemble, in order to
highlight the vigour of the counterpoint, although the intonation of the
whole took a little while to settle.

These Cambridge choral scholars came together in 2014 for a performance of
Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday in the chapel
of Trinity College and so the Gesualdo Six was born. The English
choral tradition and its extant institutions, in which the singers have
learned their craft, seemed both an asset and limitation here, and
throughout the programme. First, this music is clearly and persuasively ‘in
the blood’; and there is an assured balance of blended mellifluousness with
soloist narrative. But, diction was sacrificed to beauty of sound;
consonants often disappeared, and vowels were bent into uniformity.

However, such consistency has its uses! The programme juxtaposed the
traditional with the modern and the Gesualdo Six switched between
the two with admirable ease. The sweetness of Jonathan Harvey’s The Annunciation was tempered by harmonic piquancy that seemed
almost modal in flavour. Likewise, the exploratory chromatic inflections of
Tallis’s Videte Miraculum spoke of modern concerns. In the former,
solo voices fluently exchanged the melody, setting the words of Edwin Muir,
against a gentle but firm background hum; and while, again, I’d have liked
more textual definition – which would have given the contrast between
homophony and counterpoint stronger meaning – the ‘deepening trance’ of the
close was expertly crafted.

Praetorius’s arrangement of Es ist ein Ros Entsprungen offered
more familiar musical fare, and an opportunity to enjoy the contrast of the
crystalline countertenor solo of the outer verses with the richer hues of
the lower voices, firmer of presence, in the middle verse. The crafting of
the pianissimo fade into silence at the close was exquisite, symbolising
infinity: ‘uns das verleith’. Park’s own On the Infancy of our Saviour was similarly beguiling, hovering in
homophonic enunciation, then swelling with quasi-zealous melismatic
rapture, though once again I wished for more textual definition. Francis
Quarles’s sentimental images of childhood – of the ‘Saviour perking on thy
knee!’, ‘nuzzling’ in virgin brest, with ‘spraddling limbs’, and going
‘diddle up and down the room’ – may be rooted in the pragmatic fact that he
and his wife Ursula Woodgate had eighteen children, but such images are
still whimsical and remarkable in the context of the virgin birth.

The Gesualdo Six repaired to the circular nave, beside the
towering decorated spruce at the west end of Temple Church, for the
linch-pin of the performance: Thomas Tallis’s Videte Miraculum, in
which the plainchant is both woven into the texture and used to underpin
the structure through solo reiteration. One could not fault the ease with
which Park shaped the grand architecture of the contrapuntal branches, nor
the evocation of awed reverence; but, I did feel that the ensemble needed a
weightier bass. The countertenors exhibited the occasional tendency to
drift sharp and Craddock and bass Sam Mitchell did not exert the
gravitational pull to reign them in to an anchored centre – not that this
is a criticism of the individual singers, but additional numbers would have

Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s The Promised Light of Life followed – in
what must have been an arrangement as the original is for TTBB: though who
could complain when the countertenors’ soft, echoing ‘Christus’ summoned
the silvery sheen of the ‘morning star’ which St Bede’s prayer celebrates.
This was a hypnotic conjuring of peace and everlasting assurance.

The singers became compelling story-tellers in Herbert Howells’s Here is the little door. Parks relished the quasi-theatrical
setting of Frances Chesterton’s ambivalent text: exaggerating the vocal
vitality – ‘lift up that latch, of lift!’ – and the blazing sheen of ‘Our
gift of finest gold’. But, there was real drama, and perhaps disquiet, in
the juxtaposition of the ‘keen-edged sword’ of gold and the ‘Myrrh for the
honoured happy dead’, while the withdrawal of sound with the line ‘Gifts
for His children, terrible and sweet’ anticipated the awed reverence at the
closing sight of ‘such tiny hands/ and Oh such tiny feet’.

William Byrd’s Vigilate shook us from wondrous contemplation,
though: ‘Watch ye’! shuddered with rhythmic vibrancy and attack – ‘nescitis
enim quando dominus domus veniat’ (for you know not when the lord of the
house cometh). Park again exhibited a masterly command, conveyed unfussily,
of the architectural majesty of this motet and the balancing of, and
transitions between, different moods were expertly handled. The final cry –
‘omnibus dico: vigilante’ (I say to you all: Watch) – had me bristling with

Lawson’s arrangement of the traditional carol Veni, veni, Emmanuel was beautifully delivered, the varying
combinations of ensemble and solo voices, and increasing harmonic
complexity, executed with confident and consummate musicianship. Jonathan
Rathbone’s setting of Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Oxen’ brought the concert to a
close: the slow tempo, ambient humming, and flowering of homophony into
more complex counterpoint, all pointed to the ambivalent hopefulness of
Hardy’s verse. We were left with the tentative but expectant wish of the
poet: ‘I should go with him in the gloom./ Hoping it might be so.’

Though the stunning venue and sonorous vocal ambience had combined to
mesmeric effect, the noisy interruption of an overhead helicopter briefly
forestalled the encore. But, the dulcet performance of Away in a Manger, which allowed us to enjoy the warmth and easy
fluency of Sam Mitchell’s bass, briefly lulled us to forget the buses
rattling down Fleet Street and the black cabs chuntering over Waterloo
Bridge. This was a lovely festive musical banquet.

Gesualdo Six
’s first recording will be an album of English renaissance polyphony, due
for release by Hyperion in
spring of 2018.

Claire Seymour

The Gesualdo Six
: Owain Park (director), Guy James & Alexander Chance (countertenors),
Gopal Kambo & Josh Cooter (tenor), Michael Craddock (baritone), Sam
Mitchell (bass).

Trad. arr. Brian Kay – Gaudete; Praetorius –Nun Komm, der Heiden Heiland ‡ 6; Harvey –The Annunciation; Trad. German, harm. Praetorius –Es Ist ein’ Ros’ Entsprungen; Park – On the Infancy of our Saviour; Tallis – Videte Miraculum;
Frances-Hoad – The Promised Light of Life; Howells –Here is the little door; Byrd – Vigilate; Trad. arr. Lawson – Veni, veni, Emmanuel; Rathbone – The Oxen.

Temple Church, London; Thursday 14th December 2017.

image_description=Gesualdo Six at Temple Church (Temple Winter Festival)
product_title=Gesualdo Six at Temple Church (Temple Winter Festival)
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id= Above: Gesualdo Six

Photo credit: Ash Mills