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22 May 2024

The drama of Carlo Gesualdo

The vocal ensemble the Gesualdo Six on the Renaissance composer’s arresting and daring works.

By Edward Docx

A performance by the Gesualdo Six usually begins with Joseph Wicks, one of the tenors, taking a tuning fork from his pocket and banging his head with it. Wicks has perfect pitch (although how his pitch is any more perfect than the other five is surely lost on the audience as soon as they start to sing). Wicks then hums the note that they need – usually the tonic. And that’s it… In they come – in perfect time and sublime voice, their unison as resonant as it is textured, as nuanced as it is sumptuous, as understated as it is transcendent.

“The hardest thing for us is starting and finishing a piece,” their director, Owain Park, explains – joking-not-joking. Park is 30, from Bristol originally, and a composer, conductor and fellow of the Royal College of Organists. “We get one go at it and then we’re away. Most of our work is unaccompanied – so we’re very much on our own out there.”

Park is as communicative in life as he is on the concert platform. What he means is that this choral repertoire is some of the most exposed music there is. Simply, there’s nowhere to hide with six unaccompanied voices: everything has to be precise and replete – immediately. When they begin, they conjure sound from thin air – literally, from the breath. And the experience of listening partakes in this. Some part of you feels subliminally aware of both fragility and resonance. “Also,” Park grins, “we have words – so we really can’t get lost for a few bars and fudge it because people would notice.”

One of my favourite concerts of the year so far was their tenth anniversary concert back in February – which had a terrific programme that mingled music from eight centuries. And I am catching up with Park again just before they are about to perform live at the Wigmore Hall with the great pianist Jeremy Denk and the violinist Maria Włoszczowska. They will be singing the origin songs bedded within the four fiendish violin sonatas of the American composer Charles Ives (1874-1954). I’m interested in their approachable programmes and recordings, and, of course, their insight into Gesualdo himself, the composer from whom they take their name.

On the first, their programming, Park says: “In our kind of choral work, there’s no long symphonic work to perform, so we are trying to build a musical narrative that takes the audience with us.” Their 2020 album Fading evinces this. “The collection starts us off at the end of the evening and journeys into the middle of the night and through the early hours until the sun rises. The dark meant something different in previous centuries. So we go through different moods – something spooky and shadowy, but then coming into the dawn. There’s a piece by [the contemporary British composer] Joanna Marsh in the more open key of G major, for example, which we then follow with a song by William Byrd [1539-1623] in A-flat minor which is much darker and grungier. Straight after that, we go into a lullaby by the Estonian Veljo Tormis [1930-2017]. In this way, we can create a living programme with meaning and narrative.”

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And, I would add, with atmosphere. The six voices have a certain distinct timbre – so, in one sense, whatever they sing sounds related. Instead of such juxtapositions jarring or lurching, their programmes and recordings sound more like what Park calls a “sinewy exploration”. There’s an interesting paradox here: this much older style of performance (which is how some of the earliest composers in the Western canon intended their pieces to be heard) turns out to be a form that can most successfully introduce audiences to much newer choral music. For this reason, the Six are keen to include contemporary artists whenever they can. They are recording a collection right now with Matilda Lloyd, the young British trumpet player (who won the BBC Young Musician 2024 brass category final). Meanwhile, for their upcoming album, Queen of Hearts, they’ve commissioned a piece by another British female contemporary composer, Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade. “She was inspired,” Park adds, by “Gesualdo and Monteverdi together.”

Which brings us to Gesualdo himself (1566-1613). In an age when aristocrats regularly slaughtered one another and their relatives, Gesualdo is nonetheless infamous for killing his wife and her lover when he caught them in flagrante. Recent biographers tell us that he likely suffered from severe mental illness and was certainly prey to deep depression; that he would regularly have himself beaten by his servants; that he would lock himself away in his castle for long periods; and that he died in one such self-imposed isolation three weeks after the death of his son.

His music is likewise arresting. Indeed, he is much studied as one of the most dramatic and experimental composers of the Renaissance whose work survives. At its simplest, this experimentalism means that he uses chromatic chord progressions, deploying the 12 notes of the chromatic scale rather than the diatonic seven of any given scale. Sometimes, he includes all 12 in a single phrase distributed among the different voices. And this leads to strange and sharp dissonances and weird-sounding combinations that lend the music a modern, unsettling, destabilising quality. Many of the unusual chord progressions he uses only resurface in the 19th century.

“His Tenebrae Responsoria for Maundy Thursday were completely different to anything I had ever tackled before,” Park says. “He juxtaposes chords that are seemingly worlds apart. Other composers do this, of course, but he seems to manage to do so bar after bar after bar. The individual lines to sing are often not the most challenging. But when you begin to layer them, they don’t seem to make any obvious sense – and then you add more and more layers, and you find yourself in extraordinary places musically. You have to develop this extra certainty that the whole sound will actually work – and that can only come from rehearsal. Sometimes, one singer is holding a note but everyone around him is moving. This is what lends the music a quality that is modern sounding – the unsteadiness. The way he combines the voices to create the tension and the release is extraordinary.”

These disquieting agonies and resolutions can be heard, for example, in the passages set in Gethsemane in the Six’s recording of the Maundy Thursday Tenebrae. You hear the agitation of the arresting soldiers and the impetuousness and cowardice of the disciples; but you never lose sight of – never lose sound of – the anguish and the loneliness and, I think, the fear of Christ. The music is somehow more than merely evocative; it somehow enacts the Latin words: “Now ye shall see a multitude, that will surround me/Ye shall run away, and I will go to be sacrificed for you.”

And this is what the Gesualdo Six do best. Their musicianship is so secure that they’re able to summon the drama into the present of live performance. Watching them – listening to them – is to remind yourself of what beauty the human voice can conjure; but, also, to remind yourself of our better nature – of the shared artistic experience and the felt communion of dramatic music.

[See also: Eric Clapton’s late years]

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This article appears in the 22 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Special 2024