At his death 400 years ago in 1623, William Byrd embodied the golden age of English polyphony. In this anniversary year, The Gesualdo Six has paid tribute with a program of music by Byrd and other English composers, called simply “English Motets.” The a cappella sextet has emerged as one of our foremost avatars of the era’s harmonic inventiveness and of the lasting beauty and appeal of its music.
On February 18 the group brought to New York City its well-conceived program of religious music by Byrd, his mentor Thomas Tallis, and a few other English composers of the late 15th through 16th and early 17th centuries. The resonant Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Times Square proved a superb setting for this music.
The Gesualdo Six: Small Numbers, Big Sound
The Gesualdo Six is a charismatic, almost painfully talented choir of young men led by bass (and composer, conductor and organist) Owain Park. Park introduced and briefly described the selections in a deep, velvety voice consistent with his singing range.
Singing texts in Latin and English, the group performed in formations of four, five or six singers. (I’m not sure countertenor Guy James ever got a break, though.) In whatever number, their voices filled the large church. While the space has excellent acoustics, every venue is different, and the group has clearly mastered the dynamic balance and tonal clarity needed to vivify this ancient music in highly resonant spaces.
The music ranged from the luscious polyphony of Byrd and Tallis to more straightforward but equally beautiful pieces by Thomas Tompkins and Robert White. It also included an interesting bilingual setting of “Nolo mortem peccatoris” (“I do not wish the death of a sinner”) by Thomas Morley. That performance limned the composer’s skill at creating, first, a solemn, devotional mood for the Latin part of the text, and then a more down-to-earth English-language musical mode illustrating the idea of Jesus’ suffering as a human being. (“Father, behold my painful smart / taken for man on ev’ry side.”)
Relatively conversational too was “Ah, gentle Jesu,” one of only two known works by the late-15th-century composer known only as Sheryngham. Two pairs of singers trade lines before coalescing at the ends of verses. The harmonies reached a chilling height as the choir sang of “My bloody woundes down railing by this tree / Look on them well and have compassion.”
Two other highlights: Tompkins’ “When David heard” emerged as a keening wail, with Park switching from vocalist to conductor as if the music had to be forcefully kept under control; and Thomas Tallis’ “In manus tuas,” where the group achieved an especially celestial sound.
Show, Don’t Tell
Most crowd-pleasing of all was a piece by the evening’s primary honoree, William Byrd. Again with Park conducting, “Vigilate” built to a huge sound with the energy of a rock anthem. The group also enlivened the concert with a respectful, but respectable, element of showbiz pizzazz: beginning the concert unseen from the rear of the church; filing to the stage while singing; positioning one singer upstage and others offstage. For further variety, the piece by Robert White featured a solo voice – paring the devotional musical tradition down to its minimum – alternating with the group.
It’s wonderful to hear such a talented ensemble of young singers perpetuating some of the Western Hemisphere’s finest vocal music, centuries after it was written and well before the better-known baroque and classical music eras. The Gesualdo Six are as good a choir of its type as I’ve heard. Their debut album, English Motets, includes some of the above selections. They’ve also released an album of music by Josquin Desprez, a Christmas album, and more. Find out more about them at their website.
The concert was their debut with Columbia’s Miller Theatre Early Music series, which continues with Stile Antico on April 29.