Mixed voice adult choirs have given us new perspectives on the trove of Renaissance choral music over the past 30 years or so. The Clerkes of Oxenford, for instance; then the Tallis Scholars, Tenebrae, the Sixteen, and Polyphony: transformative choirs that are now joined by, among many others, Voces8 and Stile Antico.
The Gesualdo Six are different. This is an adult male choir, formed in 2014, currently comprising Alex Chance, Josh Cooter, Michael Craddock, Guy James, Samuel Mitchell and Joseph Wicks, and led by the prize-winning organist, singer and composer, Owain Park. The sound we hear is one that was more familiar to Renaissance listeners than it is to us: of adult male singers covering more or less the full compass of a choir of men and boys or girls. The first professional recording of the Gesualdo Six goes straight to the beating, and often troubled, heart of the English Renaissance, both Protestant and Catholic, in Latin and English.
It is a brave young choir that includes some of the most celebrated of English Renaissance church music in its first recording; and it is a remarkable young choir that makes those pieces sound as if we have not quite heard them properly before. Thomas Tallis’s If Ye Love Me is a miniature and a masterpiece. And here it glows. One of the most striking features of this ensemble is that they produce the illusion of being one voice: the coherence of the sound, and the disciplined expressiveness from the top to the bottom line, result in a kind of sonic unity that is distinctive and compelling. Not a trace of sentimentality or theatricality – nor of individual voices protruding – is to be heard.
Owain Park takes his time: the tempi are often slower than we usually hear. John Taverner’s Quemadmodum, for instance, has a purity of sound (remarkable counter-tenor singing here) that is skeined out, elongated through a stately pace. There is something almost static about some of the effects – including in Tomkins’s great When David Heard. Music is moving through time, of course, but imbued with tranquillity, as if our relationship with an earthly clock is briefly altered by this ensemble. Cornysh, Byrd, White, Gibbons, Parsons, Dunstable are here: all the Olympians, as Yeats might have said.
The most substantial work, in terms of duration, is Tallis’s seven-voice Suscipe quaeso Domine. It has sometimes been thought that this two-section motet, with its striking chromaticism, was written for a ceremony in November 1554 when Mary Tudor’s Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Pole, absolved England of schism. That was, of course, one of the most dramatic moments in Mary’s urgent and often brutal effort to reverse the Reformation that her father, Henry VIII, had inaugurated.
Tallis certainly had a remarkable gift for satisfying both Protestant and Catholic employers. But the intimacy of the composer’s involvement with this penitential text – with its notably pained moment of “I have sinned” – tempts one to think that the composer’s heart really was with the old faith. It is an uncomfortable piece, nevertheless, for all its beauty. This is because while Tallis made exquisite music from an act of repentance for the Reformation, outside the stakes were aflame with human beings whom Mary could not make repent.
Protestant repentance – as distinct from repentance for being Protestant – is most characterfully represented on this recording by Gibbons’s O Lord in thy Wrath Rebuke me Not, a motet freighted with heaviness and with the sorrows of a petition for forgiveness. It is a timely reminder, listening to this recording, of how much the religious feeling of the 16th and early 17th centuries in England, as expressed in music, remain part of ongoing acts of worship both Protestant and Catholic. For celebration, contrition, adoration or to mark the liturgical seasons, there lies here a resource that is still very much alive. The musical vocabulary of this writing, and its emotional and spiritual range, continue as much as the Book of Common Prayer or the Ordinary of the Mass to give us terms for expressing one’s relationship with God.
Owain Park has assembled an excellent group of singers, each distinguished in musical life elsewhere. Joseph Wicks (tenor), was Herbert Howells Organ Scholar at St John’s College, Cambridge, and is now assistant director of music at Truro Cathedral. A graduate of the Genesis Sixteen programme – the educational part of Harry Christopher’s the Sixteen – Wicks is but one of the musicians on this disc who leave the listener assured that a great choral tradition is being revered as well as seen and heard afresh.
Among the choral ensembles of the present, who move us with their insightful readings of masterworks from the Renaissance, the Gesualdo Six are already making their mark.
English Motets, The Gesualdo Six, dir Owain Park, on Hyperion CDA68256. Francis O’Gorman is Saintsbury Professor of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh and chairman of The Ruskin Society. He tweets at @francis_ogorman