The Renaissance came late to England. But its cultural rebirth was just as painful as Italy’s, which had started a century earlier. From the 15th to the 17th centuries, rulers and religions came and went. And it was from these strange rhythms and unsettling harmonies that the sacred vocal music of the period often took its cue, whether Catholic or Protestant.
The Gesualdo Six. Photo © Ash Mills
UK vocal ensemble The Gesualdo Six’s director and bass Owain Park admitted he would like to have given Saturday afternoon’s Perth Festival Chamber Music Weekend audience an example of all the English motet styles of the time. But then it would have been a nine-hour concert, instead of just one.
So, together with the ensemble’s other members – countertenor Guy James, tenors Joseph Wicks and Josh Cooter, baritone Michael Craddock and bass Samuel Mitchell – Park provided more a lean, refined degustation than a full-on Henry VIII-style banquet. One that definitely left you wanting more.
Appropriately enough, four works of that musical giant of the period, William Byrd (1543-1623), bookended the program; at its heart lay two works by Byrd’s teacher, the incomparable Thomas Tallis (1505-1585). The whole program moved forward by alternating between homophonic and polyphonic textures; between relative simplicity and complexity; between relaxation and tension.
The effect was as mesmerising as the almost inexplicable contrast between the purity, clarity and beauty of the singing on the one hand and its affective ferocity on the other. The code-shifting between plain English and luxuriant Latin only intensified this effect.
The crystalline fragility of the Gesualdos’ rendition of Byrd’s famous hymn Ave verum corpus immediately ushered in a mood of pleasurable (perverse, even) contrariety, which the same composer’s more complex Afflicti pro peccatis nostris, its waves of sound crashing against a cantus firmus, upheld.
Tallis’ luminous, flowing O nata lux, its closing moments stretching to a spikier finial, prepared the way for John Sheppard’s equally flowing yet more ornate In manus tuas II, while the lightness of Tallis’ classic model of simplicity and intelligibility in sacred vocal writing, If ye love me, proved a subtle foil to Robert White’s similarly restrained yet texturally variable Christe qui lux es et dies.
Suddenly the Gesualdos introduced a heightened sense of drama with Thomas Tomkins’ searing, plangent lament When David Heard, King David’s grief over the loss of his son Absalom made palpable – the spirit made flesh – through extraordinary word-painting. This was perhaps the concert’s high point, at least in sheer emotional punch.
John Plummer’s Tota pulchra es for three voices took us briefly back to the music of the previous century and the Chapel Royal of Henry VI, the Gesualdos relishing its spare beauty, before Byrd’s sonorous, joyful Laudate pueri Dominum and Vigilate – the single encore – brought this unforgettable concert to a ringing conclusion.