Over the last few years, The Gesualdo Six have recorded a series of albums for Hyperion. I’ve heard several of them and I’ve been impressed both by the very high standard of musicianship and by the discerning nature of the programming. Consequently, I was keen to appraise their latest CD. Many ensembles record discs of Christmas music but Owain Park and his colleagues have done something slightly different: they have put together a musical sequence which focuses on the season of the Epiphany.
A series of pieces of plainchant, setting texts proper to the Epiphany season run like a spine through the programme. Mostly these are sung by several voices. The very first of these, Ecce advenit, the Introit for the Mass of the Epiphany, sets the tone for the plainchant items; there is absolute unanimity between the five voices and the singers are beautifully recorded in the warm, nicely resonant acoustic of Trinity College Chapel. Two of the chant pieces, Omnes de Saba venient and Reges Tharsis are sung by a solo tenor, Josh Cooter and Joseh Wicks respectively; both are excellent.
Most of the rest of the programme consists of either Renaissance polyphony or contemporary settings One exception to this is The Three Kings by Cornelius. Samuel Mitchell is the fine solo bass and he’s expertly supported by his five colleagues. Here, one appreciates the clarity that one-to-a-part singing brings to the music; that’s a consistent feature of the programme. We also hear Howells’ Here Is the Little Door (1918). It’s one of his Three Carol-Anthems and as such, if I may venture a dreadful pun, a stable companion to A Spotless Rose. The latter is ubiquitous at Christmas – and understandably so – but I think Here Is the Little Door is equally worthy of acclaim. In this performance the intimacy of the performance allows us to appreciate to the full Howells’ expressive harmonic language.
I appreciated just as much the clarity which Park and his colleagues bring to the pieces of Renaissance polyphony. That’s especially evident in Tribus miraculis by Orlande de Lassus. This piece, in five parts, is highly celebratory; the polyphony is elaborate but in this performance every strand is crystal clear, which is greatly to the music’s advantage. Incidentally, I was fascinated to learn from Owain Park’s notes that in the closing moments of the piece Lassus sets the word ‘Alleluia’ no less than fifty-two times across the five vocal parts. Just as celebratory in nature is Illuminare, Jerusalem by the French-born composer Pierre de Manchicourt (c 1510-1564). I don’t think I’ve encountered his music before but I liked this piece, in which the polyphony is very fluent. In a very different vein, Jacobus Handl’s Mirabile mysterium has a real air of mystery to it, especially in the opening pages, which these singers deliver with hushed awe. I learned from the notes that Brahms admired the music of Johannes Eccard. Maria wallt zum Heiligtum is perhaps his best-known piece. Here, the voices are ideally blended and the singing is very expressive.
Moving from the past to the present, The Gesualdo Six include In Winter’s House by Joanna Marsh. I first heard this piece on a disc by Tenebrae, for whom it was composed in 2019. I liked it very much then (review) but I found it refreshing to hear it sung by a smaller group; the scoring is for tenors and basses only. This is the only secular piece on the Gesualdo Six’s programme but it more than merits inclusion and it works really well when sung by a small group. The other female composer represented here is Judith Bingham. In Mary’s Love is a setting of a poem by Ben Kaye. There are five stanzas and Bingham sets each of them differently. I liked this piece a lot; it’s a fine, thoughtful response to Kaye’s poetry. Arvo Pärt’s Morning Star was composed in 2007 to mark the 175th anniversary of the foundation of Durham University, Appropriately, Pärt chose to set, in English, a prayer which is inscribed above the tomb of St Bede in Durham Cathedral. The piece is written for five voices and, as ever with this composer, his spare textures require absolute precision. It seems almost superfluous to say that The Gesualdo Six supply exactly that degree of precision. They also include a piece by Owain Park himself. His O Send Out Thy Light sets two lines from Psalm 42. Park divides the ensemble into two groups, each of three singers. I was impressed with this piece, which is atmospheric and beautiful.
It’s with an arrangement by Owain Park that the programme concludes. He tells us that he arranged the well-known Epiphany hymn Bethlehem, of Noblest Cities as an encore piece for The Gesualdo Six’s seasonal concerts. I must admit I was surprised when I saw this item on the track list; like most people, I expect, my experience of this tune and these words has been in the context of a congregational hymn with organ accompaniment. Park’s arrangement works exceptionally well. He sets each of the five verses in a different way – I especially like the way the tune is passed around the voices in the third verse – and the overall tone is contemplative. This is a far cry from an enthusiastically sung congregational hymn; rather, it’s hushed and thoughtful. The approach works really well and the setting rounds off the programme in a very attractive way.
Throughout the programme, the singing of The Gesualdo Six (augmented in five items by guest countertenor Will Prior) is immaculate. I enjoyed the purity and intelligence of their performances very much indeed. They have been recorded expertly by engineer David Hinitt and producer Adrian Peacock. The recording balances the group in an ideal fashion and places them beautifully in the acoustic of Trinity College Chapel, which is an ideal venue. Owain Park’s notes are succinct and informative.
This is a notable musical celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany.
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The Three Kings (Weihnachtslieder, Op. 8, No. 3, (Arr. Atkins / Park)
Maria wallt zum Heiligtum
Omnes de Saba venient
In Winter’s House
Here Is the Little Door (Three Carol-Anthems: No. 1)
Alleluia. Vidimus stellam
Jacobus Clemens non Papa
Magi veniunt ab oriente
There Is No Rose
Orlande de Lassus
Tribus miraculis, LV 219
O Send Out Thy Light
In Mary’s Love
Pierre de Manchicourt
I. Illuminare, Jerusalem, quia venit lumen tuum
II. Filii tui de longe venient
Traditional (arr. Park)
Bethlehem, of Noblest Cities