When you go to a concert you may hope for moments of delight but you do not expect the hairs to stand up on the back of your neck. Yet this is what happened to many of us in this concert by the Gesualdo Six when the voice of the counter-tenor, Guy James, thrilled from the back of the church. For those who do not know them, the Gesualdo Six are a group with voices which are like instruments of superb quality, sometimes blending, sometimes contrasting but always in touch with each other, even when at opposite ends of the church. Their rapport, like the beauty of their voices, is effortless
The majority of the concert was from the Renaissance and particularly from the composers who flourished at the time of Josquin des Prez, the pre-eminent French composer of the time, whose 500th anniversary is this year. This was a period when melodic interweaving or counterpoint was replacing the austere plainsong heard earlier in churches and chapels. The essence of the counterpoint was that the separate melodies, sung together, sound more beautiful as a whole. And this is what we heard again and again. Their familiarity with this period, already profound, must have deepened during lockdown, when it seems, Owain Park – their director – began to learn Renaissance French! The majority of the pieces were those expressing devotion to the Virgin Mary followed by some based on the Song of Songs.
Then they moved to early English composers – Cornysh, Fayrfax and Sheryngham – and the flavour was more ‘domestic’ with love complaints, and a call to Jesus for mercy. This was English music of the period with composers less familiar than such as Dowland or Tallis but still vibrant with the slightly plaintive spirit of much music of the time
Finally, to the present day and some huge contrasts. ‘Car auprès de toi’ by the Edinburgh based composer Ninfea Crutwell-Reade could hardly have been more different from Owain Park’s version of ‘Phos hilaron (‘Hail Gladdening Light’). And ‘Grandmother moon’, set to music by Eleanor Daley, is a mystical text by a Mi’kmaq poet living on a British Columbian island. Very different again.
The enthusiastic applause as they ended demanded an encore. And in some ways this was, to me, as touching as any of their pieces. ‘Glory to thee My God this night’ begins Tallis’s canon. Familiar, moving, comforting as a lullaby – who could have rendered it more beautifully? This was their second visit and there is little doubt that they’ll be back.