09 Mar ‘Stunning performances’ – another concert review
Edward Breen writing for Early Music Today: ‘stunning performances’ ‘mesmeric stage presence’ ‘superbly devised and slickly presented’ ‘…reminding us that here is a corner of late-medieval repertoire in which Gothic Voices are supreme’
Read the full review below
Anon. England 13th-14th centuries, John Dunstaple (c. 1390-1453), Walter Frye (fl.1460): Settings of Marian texts offset by those of contemporaries Arvo Pärt (*1935) Joanne Metcalf (*1958), Andrew Smith (*1970)
Mary in her various guises – caring mother, virgin lover, guiding light. A progressive exploration of settings of ancient ritualistic texts by English composers of the 13th to 15th centuries, showing her mythical and human aspects. Contemporary settings relate the themes to the modern day.
Gothic Voices, an ensemble synonymous with all-vocal performances of medieval music, made a welcome return to the London stage last night as part of the Choral at Cadogan series. Their programme, ‘Mary, Star of the Sea’ blended medieval and modern works in praise of the Virgin Mary and was superbly devised and slickly presented. Each half was sung straight through without applause and, key to the mesmeric stage presence of the quartet, there were no tuning forks, and no humming. Rather, monodic and polyphonic works alike were plucked as if from mid-air allowing the programme’s sequence to unfold and envelope the audience. This also held true with the modern compositions, which were performed with equal panache; a presentation that owes more than a little something to the now retired Hilliard Ensemble. Stunning performances of Joanne Metcalf’s triptych Il nome del bel fiore, and Arvo Pärt’s entrancing Most Holy Mother of God hinted that the Hilliard’s legacy of new music set for ATTB has been wisely bequeathed. Furthermore, the world premiere of Andrew Smith’s two-part Stond wel, moder, under rode (Stand well, mother under the cross) set the second half ablaze with searing harmonies served up with relish by these assured vocalists.
The ensemble’s tag line ‘unaccompanied close medieval harmonies’ is apt. Their clearly etched tuning and uncluttered style suits the narrow compass of the music well, and their warm blend brings intimacy to the vertical qualities of medieval repertoire. Topped with the rich vocals of mezzo-soprano Catherine King, their sound has become less hard-line over the years and now provides an important alternative to today’s prevailing countertenor-led sound-world. It was announced that King was suffering from a cold and was replaced in several items by Caroline Trevor who brought a bright sheen to works by Dunstable, Power and Frye. Changing vocalist for these pieces cleverly highlighted ‘The Contenance Angloise’, one of our best British exports, reminding us that here is a corner of late-medieval repertoire in which Gothic Voices are supreme.
The ensemble has an important place in British cultural life, their first disc is still one of the top selling early music albums of all time (A Feather on the Breath of God – Hymns and Sequences by Abbess Hildegard of Bingen) and subsequent albums pioneered the now common practice of vocalizing non-texted parts in medieval chansons. They have performed infrequently of late and so this concert was keenly anticipated and well received.