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Gesualdo Six: O Hearken

English polyphony is experiencing something of a golden age with many contemporary composers writing in the tradition and evidenced by the success, in recent decades, of ensembles such as ‘The Sixteen’, ‘Voces 8’ and, since 2014, Gesualdo Six, described by Julia Sieber Boyd in her opening remarks as ‘the best polyphonic group in the country’ with its burgeoning national and international reputation.

The vocal consort gave an impeccable performance of works from the Renaissance to the present day at its concert in OLEM on Friday evening as part of the current Cambridge Summer Music Festival.

The Gesualdo Six (14102250)
The Gesualdo Six (14102250)

From the opening notes of Thomas Tallis’s ‘Te lucis ante terminum’, sung by a lone counter tenor, the concert’s audience was enthralled by the beauties that the human voice is capable of creating. The Gesualdo’s consort of only six members harmonized to become a full complement of singers whose power was omnipresent and its effect at times overwhelming.

This was a class act. In the atmospheric half-light, the unobtrusive singers’ constant positioning and re-positioning of themselves in the church’s various spaces – side-chapels, aisle or organ loft – added to the mystery and made the complex configurations of the music they were singing almost visible.

The setting of Cambridge’s imposing late Gothic Revival Roman Catholic church of ‘Our Lady and the English Martyrs’ was especially appropriate in pointing up the significance of the music in performance of Byrd and Tallis, both Catholic recusants and therefore potential English martyrs, while the Virgin Mary was the subject of ‘Ave Maria Mater Dei’, a work by William Cornysh the Elder and based on the Annunciation.

The Gesualdo Six (14102252)
The Gesualdo Six (14102252)

Several performers in Gesualdo Six have Cambridge connections. Owain Park, charismatic director of the ensemble, is a composer and organist (he was an organ scholar at Trinity College) and two of his compositions were included in the programme. Joanna Marsh, represented by two movements from her ‘Arabesques’ is currently Composer in Residence at Sidney Sussex College, and Jonathan Seers wrote his ‘Look Down, O Lord’, while a student at St John’s. This was a particularly haunting work marking the transition from light to darkness in the daily service of Compline.

The ensemble was consistently immaculate in its presentation of the varied programme which included some rarities from the Renaissance such as John Plummer’s ‘Tota pulchra es’, as well as striking examples of modern compositions, among which David Bednall’s (b. 1979) ‘Put out into the deep’ was dramatically presented as it told the story of the miraculous draught of fishes. Cheryl Frances Hoad’s (b.1980) ‘The Promised Light of Life’, based on a Latin text of Bede and a phrase from the revelation of St John the Divine, had an ethereal calmness which dwindled away to a perfect, near silent, conclusion.

Such musical representations have the effect of enhancing our focus on the biblical texts, just as medieval doom paintings on the walls of churches were there to remind congregations, who often couldn’t read, of their possible fate.

The music of the Gesualdos’ programme (in regular competition with the bells of the church itself as they struck the quarters), is safe in the hands of this talented consort which will continue to preserve a priceless legacy with the kind of performances it deserves. JOHN GILROY

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