Sestina: Master & Pupil

Master & Pupil
Exploring the Influences and Legacy of Claudio Monteverdi
Sestina Music, Mark Chambers
Resonus/Inventa INV1007. 71’18

Following a crowdfunding scheme, the Belfast based early music group Sestina have released their debut CD, Master and Pupil. The title ‘Master and Pupil’ (and yes, it is blurred on the CD cover) relates to the notion of musical apprenticeship, with inspiration passing down through the generations from master to pupil. For this recording, Sestina concentrates on the influences on, and the influences of, the music of Claudio Monteverdi both from his own teachers and on his own pupils. This approach reflects Sestina’s own philosophy, which is based on younger musicians being “placed under the wings of experienced professionals in an apprentice-like fashion”.

After the opening of Monteverdi’s Balletto – De la bellezza we hear one of the pioneers of the master and pupil relationship in music: Josquin des Prez. It might have helped to follow the theme of the programme if the pieces were in roughly chronological order to reveal how the influences passed from via Monterverdi. Other composers include Jean Mouton, Cipriano de Rore, Salamone Rossi, Giovanni Rigatti (his sumptuous Messa a 8), Giovanni and Andrea Gabrieli and Marc’Antonio Ingegneri .

The 18-strong singers of Sestina make a grand sound as a full consort, but I have real problems with the frequent use of vibrato, apparent from the very first track. I am not sure how many of the singers are in the younger singing apprentices category but, bearing in mind the training focus of the group, this really does make me wonder whether the “wings of experienced professionals” is the best place for them to be. Once young singers develop the sort of vibrato that wreaks havoc with early music performance, it is very difficult to learn how to control it. So I query the wisdom of being coached and inspired by “experienced professional” singers that haven’t yet managed to achieve that themselves.

It was recorded in St Augustine’s, Kilburn, London rather than in Belfast – I guess as it was cheaper to bring the choir to London than to fly the professional singers and instrumentalists to Belfast. The resonant acoustic works well in the larger scale pieces but is a bit over the top for the more intimate music. The instrumentalists they have bought in for this recording are top-notch, with notable contributions from cornetists Gawain Glenton and Conor Hastings and Emily White and Martyn Sanderson, sackbuts, supported by William Lyons, dulcian. Jan Waterfield plays the continuo Organo di legno built by Walter Chinaglia based on Monteverdi models. It heard to particularly good effect in her beautifully articulated solo track of Andrea Gabrieli’s Intonazione quinto tono.

Notwithstanding my comments above, the work that Mark Chambers and Sestina do with young musicians in Belfast is to be applauded. As is their fundraising ability that brought this ambitious recording to life. The highlight for me was being able to hear the substantial Gloria of Giovanni Rigatti Messa a 8.