Review: ‘Vergina Bella’ – Devotional Renaissance music with the Marian Consort

Walking into the Keble College Chapel, designed by Victorian architect William Butterfield, I discovered an interior as stunning as its acoustics were famed to be: the ideal thematic setting for an evening of devotional music. ‘Vergina Bella’ was part of the college’s annual five-day Early Music Festival, which strives to bring young musicians of professional standing to the foreground. The Marian Consort, an internationally renowned ensemble, is defined both by its artistic rigour and its emphasis on spiritual material.

The programme was arranged so that madrigals by Cipriano de Rore (1515-65) interwove with motets by Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613), in part to emphasise the influence of the former upon the latter. The small-scale ensemble of five singers – significantly, the five-voice format was pioneered by de Rore in his early career – performed in a formation resembling a semi-circle that set the singers’ registers in a parallel ranging from high to low: a soprano and countertenor on either side; two tenors; and a baritone at the centre. Each singer was highly proficient – in a five-voice chain, any weak link is immediately identifiable – and both tenors in particular should be commended for their impressive tessitura. Although Musical Director and countertenor Rory McCleery would set the pitch and give a subtle cue to open each piece, the singers generally performed without further directions, with the kind of autonomy that denotes profound cohesion within the group.

The clarity of phrasing and the clean, unadorned delivery did justice to some of the lesser-known works of both composers. Their selection of Rore’s madrigals consisted of all eleven stanzas of Petrarch’s address to the Virgin Mary, set to music. As McCleery explained in his engaging commentaries, when considered together, these compositions enable us to track de Rore’s artistic progress from musica reservata, designed for small audiences, to full-blown, more outward pieces, as in Vergine, in qui ho and Il di s’apessa.

Any performance of Carlo Gesualdo comes with great expectations. The Prince of Venosa is notorious not only for the murder of his adulterous wife and her lover, but also for his complex compositions. Many consider his wild, tormented chromaticism and sense of harmonic daring to have been unmatched until the nineteenth century. The programme incorporated pieces from his 1603 book of motets, where, as McCleery put it, he meets “the slightly more mellifluous style” of Renaissance polyphony. Yet even at its most tempered, Gesualdo’s music remains a great challenge for its depth of texture, its demands on the register, and its rapid shifts between notes. Impressively, The Marian Consort faced those difficulties with a serenity and a precision that singles them out amongst the pool of young vocal ensembles. During the second half, the tenor voices were weaker during certain sections, overpowered by the soprano and countertenor. This may have been due in part to the acoustic of the chapel, but in any case remained occasional.

The articulation, however, was excellent throughout. This was particularly beneficial to the ensemble’s interpretation of Gesualdo, for whom text and music are inseparable, with thematically significant words heavily dramatised. The 1603 pieces, though less intensely chromatic than most of his work, were written in a period of great anxiety, during which he was involved in a witch trial, with two of his mistresses amongst the accused. The book swells with both terror and devotion: Maria, Mater gratiae, for instance, a series of imprecations to the Virgin Mary to grant him mercy, is laced with unsettling harmonies. The quiet beauty of the pieces came across gracefully in the proficiency and the unity of the singers, who should also be lauded for exploring the less iconic parts of either composer’s repertoire. The Marian Consort is clearly an outstanding ensemble, and shows the potential to establish its members as some of the best young interpreters of early and spiritual music.

Pierre Antoine Zahnd

The Keble College Early Music Festival runs every year during Hilary Term. The Marian Consort tour regularly across the UK; all dates and further information can we found on their website.

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