I heard Gesualdo Six in a concert online on 9/4/20 (it was live on 8/29/20). It was presented as part of the VOCES8 Live from London series. The concert was preceded by a cute featurette about how they put together the concerts and an interview by VOCES8 CEO and co-founder Paul Smith of Owain Park, director of Gesualdo Six. He talked about programming, how the group started doing only Gesualdo, then they branched out to other Renaissance composers, then they moved forward through other eras into contemporary music (including music by Park himself). I like that Smith asked Park about conducting the group - - basically, why do you need a conductor with only six singers? Park said that he has an outside perspective on balance, he knows their six voices very well, and the singers respond well to his conducting. I can definitely see the advantage of a conductor in rehearsal, but I don’t know how I’d like it as a singer in performance. It’s so rewarding to have that chamber music sense of agency, working off each other, watching each other instead of watching the conductor. But maybe if you establish this as the norm from the beginning, it wouldn’t be an issue…
I was won over immediately by the first piece, “Te lucis ante terminum” by Thomas Tallis (the full program is below). They have an interesting balance, they have that chilly, controlled sound of a classic English vocal ensemble, but somehow the general effect is damn luscious. One of the advantages of opening with this particular piece is that a solo was given to each of the singers. It was interesting hearing how different their voices are, making their pristine blend even more impressive.
The Tallis went straight into “Illumina faciem tuam” by Carlo Gesualdo. Gesualdo was one of the great innovators of music history. Look him up, he was one crazy mo fo! As the conductor of my college choir, the great Robert Fountain, put it, Gesualdo was writing in the 16th century and the dramatic, chromatic, thorny sort of music he wrote wouldn’t be heard again until Wagner in the 19th century.
“Phos hilaron” by Owain Park was beautiful, featuring a solo by their soprano, Guy James. Should I mention that it’s an all-male ensemble? I guess I just did. Here's the group performing it in an earlier performance:
I was less impressed by “Fading” by Joanna Marsh, it was pretty but didn’t really deliver, for me. They ended the set with William Byrd’s sweet “Lullaby ‘My Sweet Little Baby.’” Tender and sweet.
“Media vita” by Nicholas Gombert (a 16th century Flemish composer who was new to me) was beautiful but sort of aimless, the sort of piece that’s more satisfying to sing than it is so listen to. We’ve all been to concerts like that (and many of us have performed in them).
The next set opened with a solo chant by my girl Hildegard von Bingen. If you don’t know this 12th century composer - - run, don’t walk! One of the greatest composers in music history, and it seems like such a miracle that her music survived. Talk about inspiration and transcendence, this is where it’s at. Here's a recording by Emma Kirkby and Gothic Voices of a short piece by HvB:
The Bingen led nicely into “Morning Star” by Arvo Pärt, which had his signature mixture of austerity and is it a microagression to call it Slavic dirt? I loved it, in any case. The next piece was the tastiest piece on the program, “The Wind’s Warning” by Alison Willis. It was endlessly involving, lovely and luminous, full of surprises but never flashy or tricked out. I’d love to hear this piece again.
The next two pieces were for four voices rather than six, which gave a nice change in texture. The pieces made an interesting pair: “Marjal aega magada” by Veljo Tormis was a lullaby with sweet lyrics, but the music was dark and ominous. “O Little Rose” by Gerda Blok-Wilson was the flip side, a dreary poem set to light-filled music. I think it’s worth mentioning that this was the only set that was performed from memory.
The last two pieces were “Potrò viver io più se senza luce” by Luca Marenzio and “Abendlied” by Josef Rheinberger. The Marenzio was buoyant and full of color, with striking harmonic shifts. The Rheinberger was charming, a perfect closer.
“Te lucis ante terminum” by Thomas Tallis
“Illumina faciem tuam” by Carlo Gesualdo
“Look down, O Lord” by Jonathan Seers
“Phos hilaron” by Owain Park
“Fading” by Joanna Marsh
“Lullaby ‘My Sweet Little Baby’” by William Byrd
“Media vita” by Nicholas Gombert
“O Ecclesia” by Hildegard von Bingen
“Morning Star” by Arvo Pärt
“The Wind’s Warning” by Alison Willis
“Marjal aega magada” by Veljo Tormis
“O Little Rose” by Gerda Blok-Wilson
“Potrò viver io più se senza luce” by Luca Marenzio
“Abendlied” by Josef Rheinberger