Fading: The Gesualdo Six at Live from London

Since the 4th century, the service of Compline – also known as
the Night Prayer or Prayer at the End of the Day – has, with quiet
reflection, marked the ‘completion’ of the day. Those present at the
service, which asks for God’s blessing and calls upon the Lord for
protection through the coming night, depart in silence and return home to
sleep in peace.

The latest recital in VOCES8’s

Live from London

festival series saw The Gesualdo Six present music associated with the
Compline service and works which shared a subdued but reassuring quality of
the sacred works, setting independent texts which illuminated the
prevailing theme, Fading. Old and new intertwined. The earliest
work, the solo chant, ‘O Ecclesia’, by Hildegard von Bingen (1098- 1179)
marked the mid-point of the concert, with high tenor Joseph Wicks’ poised
declaration, “O Ecclesia, your eyes are like sapphire”, seeming to focus
the light that had shone from the preceding works and to shine a pathway
for those compositions that would follow. The five-part motet,Te lucis ante terminum, which was included in Thomas Tallis’ Cantiones sacrae of 1575 initiated the sequence of valedictory
reflections. The refined delineation of the polyphonic phrases, an
unwaveringly even blend, meticulously precise intonation and an inner
confidence which enabled the conversations to unfold with an almost
hypnotic logic, characterised this performance of Tallis’ motet and the
other Renaissance repertory presented. But, there was no sense of
‘sameness’: each work had a character and colour of its own. The ensemble’s
technical artistry may seem ‘flawless’ but it is not ‘faceless’.

William Byrd’s lullaby ‘My sweet little baby’ found director Owain Park
taking a singing role at the centre of the ensemble, and adding to the bass
richness which resonated upwards to countertenor Guy James’ high-lying
line. At times it seemed that there must be more voices than there really
were: the ‘lulla’ repetitions became velvet threads tying themselves into
an intricate, unravellable whole, the final cadence, like a delicate
brushstroke, completing a ‘perfect’ work of art. In Media vita, by
Nicolas Gombert the six voices were propelled by
independent purpose, the phrases varied and vigorous. At times, the driving
but controlled energy from the bass voices seemed to surge through the
texture and power the higher voices; elsewhere, small groups of inner
voices spilled outwards, the six lines drawing strength and invention from
each other. In Luca Marenzio’s madrigal, PotrÚ viver io pi˘ se senza luce, the counterpoint was more
relaxed and easeful, and with simple, restrained gestures Park crafted a
beguiling fluency. In contrast, Illumina faciem tuam by Carlo
Gesualdo strived urgently forwards, the ensemble balance sustained but the
voices searching and expanding. In the final appeal – “Domine, non
confundar, quoniam invocavi te.” (Let me not be confounded, O Lord, for I
have called upon thee) – a wonderfully idiosyncratic chromatic ‘nudge’
upwards in highest voice part lifted singers and listeners heavenwards,
towards the enlightenment.

In programmes which juxtapose past and present, it’s always interesting to
consider the balance between contrast, complement and cohesion. Here, after
Gesualdo’s harmonic twists and turns, the harmonic layering, from the top
down, at the start of Look down, O Lord, by Jonathan Seers
(b.1954) followed naturally; there was enormous rhythmic power in the
climbing phrases which culminated in punchy, bright chord clusters before
an unwinding through chromatic arguments led to unison resolution. The
spiritual resonance of Seers’ motet was strong, and the same was true of
Park’s own Phos hilaron (Hail, gladdening Light) which was
composed in 2017 for Trinity College Choir. It has three sections but we
heard only the central ‘The song of the light’. The consonant harmonies of
the ensemble, placed in a curve behind soloist James, embraced the
countertenor with a warm sonic glow as his gentle melodies unfolded freely.
Arvo P‰rt’s Morning Star, composed for the 175th birthday of
Durham University in 2007 and which sets a prayer inscribed above the tomb
of St Bede in Durham Cathedral was similarly contemplative. But, there were
stronger rhythmic currents, too, as the repetitions of the short phrases
and pulsating ostinatos – delineating a fifth in the lower voices and
reiterating “morning star” – created an ‘elasticity’ between the voices
which then sprung upwards together with the arrival of “the promise of the
light of life”. Consonant homophony consoled at the close, with the opening
of “everlasting day”.

This Live from London programme took its title from The Gesualdo
Six’s third recording, Fading, which was itself named after the
second of the four Arabesques which Joanna Marsh (b.1970) composed
for The King’s Singers in 2015. Fading sets a poem by the Iraqi
poet Abboud al Jabiri, who likens an ageing woman to a bird shedding
plumage. The shifting harmonic nuances and slowly oscillating vocal lines
became musical ripples, gentle but insistent, and gradually accrued inner
strength through the urgent questions about where the dove, which is
turning grey, will go: “will a deaf sparrow offer her a perch to sing?” The Wind’s Warning by Alison Willis won the 21-and-over category
of The Gesualdo Six’s second composition competition, and sets ‘The Wind’ –
a poem which is believed to be the last written by Ivor Gurney, and which
presents bleak imagery of “life’s torn tree” and a desperately swiftly
moving Time, blown through “blank eternity” by a blind wind. Haunting,
slightly astringent vocalisations at the start give way to a more lyrical
central section and here, as the two countertenor lines entwined it was
good to hear Andrew Leslie Cooper’s slightly lower, more ‘coloured’ voice
in dialogue with James’ cooler purity.

There were two works for four voices, both somewhat bittersweet songs about
love. In Marjal aega magada by the Estonian Veljo Tormis
(1930-2017), the homophony and rhythmic regularity of the lullaby’s
folk-inspired phrases should have been comforting soft breaths, but while
the ebb and flow was even, the calm was destabilised by restless,
unresolving harmonies. The high tessitura of Tormis’ work contrasted with
the low darkness of O little rose, O dark rose by Canadian
composer Gerda Blok-Wilson (b.1955). The Gesualdo ‘Four’ created a tender
consonance and a plump cushion of sound, but there were deep swells within
the soft folds of the latter expressing a restless passion: “Your soul a
seed of fire, I am the dew that dies in you, In the flame of your desire.”

The soothing repetitions of Josef Rheinberger’s Abendlied finally
extinguished the musical light: “Bide with us, for evening shadows darken,
and the day will soon be over.” Dylan Thomas may have urged us to ‘rage
against the dying of the light’, seeking human strength and endurance from
within, but, in the works presented by The Gesualdo Six, such strength was
inspired by faith and ensured by God’s protection. The recital did not so
much fade as uplift: and with the image of a single candle glowing on our
screens, we were taken not into darkness but towards light.

The next
Live from London

concert will be broadcast on 5th September, when VOCES8 will
perform a programme entitled

Choral Dances

Claire Seymour

The Gesualdo Six: Fading

Owain Park (director), Guy James & Andrew Leslie Cooper
(countertenors), Joseph Wicks & Josh Cooter (tenors), Michael Craddock
(baritone), Sam Mitchell (bass)

Live from London, broadcast from the VOCSE8 Centre; Saturday, 29th August 2020.

product_title=Fading: The Gesualdo Six, Owain Park (director) at Live from London
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: The Gesualdo Six