Gesualdo Six: There is no rose

There is no rose
The Gesualdo Six, Owain Park
St John’s, Smith Square, 14 December 2018

Although only formed four years ago, The Gesualdo Six have gained an impressive following, not least at St John’s, Smith Square where they were one of the four members of the second Young Artists Scheme in 2015/16. They used that residency to launch their Composition Competition at SJSS, with the second following in 2019. For their concert in this year’s SJSS Christmas Festival, they gave a mixed programme of Christmas music ranging from plainchant and the early 15th century Trinity Carol Roll and music by Taverner and Tallis, through to living composers, including their own director Owain Park.

They opened with the ancient Advent hymn Veni, veni, Emmanuel (in Philip Lawson’s arrangement) and the plainchant Rorate Caeli, sung from a side gallery, and Michael Praetorius’s version of the first chorale in the Lutheran hymnbook, the Advent Nun Komm, der Heiden Heiland and Jonathan Harvey’s The Annunciation. The birth of Jesus was represented by Michael Praetorius harmonisation of the traditional German carol Es Ist ein’ Ros’ Entsprungen, and director Owain Park’s On the Infancy of our Saviour, its tightly wrought harmonies eventually resolving onto a pure chord. Tallis’s Videte Miraculum and the note clusters of Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s The Promised Light of Life led to the conclusion of the first half with Byrd’s Vigilate, the latter less of a Christmas piece than a warning to Catholics to keep watch.

The second half opened with the inevitable Gaudete, the words dating from a late 16th-century Scandinavian collection, the melody from a slightly earlier Bohemian source, its popularity dating back to Steeleye Span in 1973. What was billed in the programme as Taverner’s Audivi vocem de caelo turned out to be Vaughan Williams’ version of the traditional carol This is the truth from above. Arvo Pärt’s evocative Morning Star was followed by the traditional English carols, There is no rose and The Coventry Carol. A plainchant Laetentur caeli introduced Handl’s ebullient Canite tuba, the voices of the Gesualdo Six tumbling over each other. Andrea Gabrieli’s Hodie Christus natus est preceeded Bach’s arrangement of Michael Praetorius’s In dulci jubilo before the concluding piece by the former Swingle Singer, Jonathan Rathbone: The Oxen, its slightly anarchic harmonies hummed beneath the two countertenors, Guy James and Alexander Chance, who had both excelled throughout the evening.

The encore was a lively version of Jingle Bells, I imagine in an arrangement by director (and occasional singer) Owain Park, who pleaded with the audience to help him find his keys. Despite the enormous range of the music performed, The Gesualdo Six managed to create a sense of momentum and integrity throughout the performance. They sing with a commendable sense of consort, each singer having their solo opportunity.