REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on The Gesualdo Six, York Early Music Festival

The Gesualdo Six with director Owain Park, back row, centre

York Early Music Festival, The Gesualdo Six, National Centre for Early Music, York, July 15

THIS year’s abbreviated festival, which seems to have ended almost before it began, went out in style with The Gesualdo Six, another group whose visits to York are thankfully plentiful.

With a countertenor on the top line, supported by two tenors, a baritone and two basses, it is well geared for a programme of English motets, especially since its director, Owain Park, underpins them all with a firm, deep bass that would be the envy of any choir.

This was almost a roll call of the great names in Tudor music (without Orlando Gibbons), which also reached back to the early 15th century composer John Forest. He was at one time a prebendary of York before becoming Dean of Wells. His three-part motet Qualis Est Dilectus Est revealed his fondness for voices moving in thirds (once thought a quirky Anglicism).

Two tear-jerkers stood out at either end of the programme. Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus, immediately following Tallis’s Te Lucis, was touchingly intimate, which added to the reverence it naturally engenders.

Even more telling was Tomkins’s When David Heard, with five voices conducted by Park, which wrung every last ounce of pain from David’s lament for his son Absalom, killed in battle. “Would God I had died for thee” was almost unbearably poignant.

Not all was so solemn. Weelkes’s setting of Psalm 47, All People, Clap Your Hands, was cheerful enough, but not quite as imaginative as the Gibbons version of this psalm. But the group really let rip in a full-throated account of Byrd’s Vigilate, merging neatly at its conclusion. The same composer’s Laudate, Pueri was equally joyful, a full-blooded account from all six singers.

In between came two hymns, by White and Tallis, with the latter’s setting of In Manus Tuas balancing an earlier one by John Sheppard that was extremely quiet, yet creamily controlled. Several times the precentor’s role was sung off-stage, which offered an extra dimension. And then there was the Tomkins. What a piece.

The Gesualdos are coming up on the inside of a longer-lived group from a well-known Cambridge college – and may soon overtake.

Review by Martin Dreyer

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