As the concert was ready to start, it appeared only two of the singers were ready on stage, and two appeared to be loitering in the side aisle. But then suddenly the glorious sound of two perfectly blended bright soprano voices (Emma Walshe and Gwendolen Martin) rang out from behind us, the generous acoustic filling the church with their duet. Countertenor (and the Marian Consort's Director) Rory McCleery and tenor William Knight took over with their duet from the side aisle, and finally baritone Rupert Reid and bass Christopher Borrett, waiting patiently at the front, had their turn, before their colleagues joined them to bring Heinrich Isaac's (c.1450-1517) Virgo prudentissima to a glorious close. We were then treated to a succession of pieces, all by different composers, and many of them new to me. The connecting thread, as Rory McCleery explained, was an exploration of the 'multi-faceted portrayal of women in the male-dominated world of renaissance vocal music'. Clearly, and not surprising given the groups's name, a major female figure explored here is the Virgin Mary, but we also had a piece possibly composed for Queen Mary (Du bon du cueur by Philip van Wilder (c.1500-1554)) as well as madrigals and songs portraying women less favourably as cuckolders or competitive lovers. Francisco Guerrero's (1528-1599) Ave Virgo sanctissima and the beautiful madrigal Sfogava con le stelle by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), about a love-sick man singing to the stars and asking them to communicate his feelings to his lover, were particular highlights for me, as well as the fun closing piece by Andrea Gabrieli (c.1532-1585), Chi chi li chi, the performers relishing the comic and bawdy texts. In the middle of the programme, they included a premiere of a piece by Hilary Campbell (b.1983), a short but highly effective Ave Maria demonstrating another side to the consort's skills, and highlighting their impeccable tuning. Overall, the sound they produce is beautifully blended - most striking in the perfectly matched clear soprano voices - and their command of the broad repertoire was highly impressive. I've also been listening with great pleasure whilst writing this to their two CDs, one of Spanish Marian devotional music, and the other of music from the Dow Partbooks, when they are joined by the Rose Consort of Viols.
It is worth highlighting at this stage something that struck me about both ensembles in tonight's concert, and it is something I have noticed increasingly with younger performers and ensembles. Their ability, and actual desire, to communicate with the audience and create a real sense of performance is so striking, perhaps because it is in such stark contrast to earlier generations of performers. A generalisation, I know, but I do wonder whether this ability to communicate - whether by introducing pieces in an entertaining and informative way without patronising, or simply in the way they perform, making use of the stage, lighting and props, for example - is something young musicians are being taught in colleges and conservatories, or whether it is that they are just used to such styles of performance from other music and arts genres, and so it comes naturally. In the case of The Marian Consort, one key factor was also the absence of a conductor - this is clearly most possible in a small consort singing, but immediately it creates a situation where the singers must be looking up and out, in order to communicate with each other, and this inevitably leads to them communicating outwards to the audience. I have to say, if I could make a small criticism following the Tallis Scholars otherwise wonderful concert last week, it would be that they were at times somewhat score-bound, and when they did look up it was largely to communicate with director Peter Phillips, not so much with the audience. A different performance style, perhaps, but I think younger performers with this natural ability to communicate may yet give the more established ensembles a run for their money.
After the interval, the ensemble La Terra e il Mare, consisting of soprano Louise Adler, Leo Duarte on oboe, violinist Naomi Burrell, Jonathan Rees on the viola da gamba, and harpsichordist Tom Foster took us forward in time to pre-Revolution France. Once again, the performers exuded energy and commitment to their music, and they began with a substantial cantata, Orphée, by Louis-Nicolas Clérambault (1676-1749). The story is well-worn, but Clérambault's expressive arias and elaborate ornamentation, interspersed with brief dramatic recitatives bring a refreshing take. Louise Adler communicated the tale convincingly, and had full command of the audience, supported by sensitive and assured accompaniment from her colleagues. The ensemble followed this with a set of trio sonata movements, Noëls en trio, by Michel-Richard de Lalande, composed for the Christmas season. The players enjoyed the variety of tempi and focus on the different instruments, in particular the interplay between the oboe and violin parts. Meanwhile, Louise Adler added to the sense of performance by gradually lighting candles around the stage, once again demonstrating these young musicians' strong sense of performance. She then joined the players and led straight into the first of three 'Street Songs'. We were then given a short but highly informative explanation of the background to this street music by Dr Nick Hammond, author of 'Gossip, Sexuality and Scandal in France (1610-1715)', and we were informed we had just heard gossip relating to the Sun King's brother and a donkey (!). The songs which followed involved gossip about Lully bemoaning the fact that a young music page, Brunet, with whom he had a notorious affair, was banished to a monastery - apparently less distraught about the separation than about what his lover might be getting up to in the monastery - and finally a song mocking Lully's apparent inability to come up with any new tunes. The Marian Consort joined in for the chorus of this last piece, from their seats at the back of the church, before then joining La Terra e il Mare on the stage for a rousing conclusion to an incredibly varied and imaginatively constructed programme, expertly performed by all the musicians involved.
Both these groups clearly have long and successful careers ahead of them, and I for one will be watching, and listening, closely.
Various. An Emerald in a Work of Gold: Music from the Dow Partbooks. The Marian Consort, Rory McCleery, Rose Consort of Viols. 2012. Compact Disc. Delphian DCD34115.