The Gesualdo Six
St John’s, Smith Square, 4 August 2020
As UK music performers slowly begin to peep out from beneath the Covid-19 covers, London’s St John’s Smith Square has initiated a short series of ‘Arts of Fugue’ concerts, tracing the development of the Fugue. They will be broadcast at 8pm every Tuesday during August as part of the Digital Exchange Programme. They opened the series with the 2016 St John’s Smith Square Young Artists, the choral group The Gesualdo Six. They were socially-distanced on stage for a concert pre-recorded in front of a much-reduced and socially-distanced audience.
Their programme, as the title Canon & Invention suggests, celebrated “the magic of music and mathematics from Renaissance Italy” with music based on the use of canon, a word meaning ‘law’ that began to be used from the 16th century to describe a form of strict, imitative musical texture where a melodic line is repeated above or below itself at intervals of time and pitch. It was a forerunner of the fugue (an imitative Baroque form of counterpoint), and was famed for its use in music of often mind-blowingly complex mathematical intricacy.
The music was drawn from the Courts of Renaissance Europe that became meeting places for some of the greatest musicians from across Europe, notably the Court at Ferrara in Italy. It had become a leading musical centre and many Franco-Flemish musicians passed through its gates, most notably, Josquin. Covering a period of around 150 years, the programme included music by Ockeghem, Compère, Josquin, Mouton and Verdelot.
The short (c30′) concert was edited so that gaps between pieces were reduced. Some of the spoken introductions to the music referred to things obviously said earlier that had been edited out, but it all made sense. Before one of the most complex pieces, Josquin’s Illibata dei virgo nutrix“. Describing the “Solfège cantus firmus, acrostic” structure of the piece, director Owain Park helpfully opined that “If you didn’t know that, it is just a nice piece of music”. And it was.
As an encore, the audience was asked which was the musical canon that would first spring to mind. Conductor Owain Park managed to suggest Tallis’s Canon before anybody was able to shout out Pachelbel. This led to his own arrangement of the Tallis. It was particularly nice to hear applause after pieces, something that musicians have missed for several months.