The music of Thomas Tallis and Willliam Byrd is well known but across the border in Scotland it is harder to name early 16th-century composers in the Scottish Church, exquisite polyphony having no place as the Reformation swept the country and Calvinistic austerity took hold. Making their first visit to Perth and opening the 51st Perth Festival of the Arts, the Marian Consort programmed music from Scotland’s forgotten golden age of polyphony alongside a recent work from Dani Howard and a brand new piece, Electra Perivolaris’ A Winged Woman, receiving its world premiere.

The Marian Consort
© Nick Rutter

Eight singers conducted by the Marion Consort’s artistic director Rory McCleery took us on a tour around surviving ancient part-books and manuscripts discovered in Buccleuch, Dunfermline and St Andrews, many demonstrating ancient links between Scotland, Flanders and France. A wonderfully controlled motet, Benedicta es, caelorum Regina from Josquin des Prez, allowed the singers to explore the Kirk’s magnificent acoustic, McCleery balancing his forces perfectly. The dense score of Adrian Willaert’s Infelix ego moved slowly, voices ascending and descending in a tightly woven motet on Psalm 50.

David Peebles, believed to have been Canon at St Andrews Priory composed Quam multi sunt, Domine, a gorgeously lush setting of the Psalm 3, the singers beginning simply then weaving complex phrases underpinned by a firm bass line. His older and more well-known Si quis diligit me on St John texts was presented to King James V, the heady mix with prominent tenor line sounding wonderful. Two ancient settings of Descendi in hortum meum from the Song of Solomon, Jachet of Mantua’s version with a hidden canon and a stunning eight-voice motet from Johannes Lupi Salve cereberrima virgo, teasing us with its dissonance, completed the Renaissance programme. The Consort’s soaring voices in this ancient music and McCleery’s careful attention to detail and colour cast a beguiling spell. It was as if we had been magically transported back 500 years.

Frustratingly, we had no texts for the modern works. Dani Howard’s intriguing 2021 piece Unbound, commissioned by the Consort, uses glissandi vocal movements, the singers arriving on crunchy chords like birds alighting on a tree branch. Beautifully constructed harmonies punctuated with occasional exhalations of air and surprising musical resolutions were shattered by more urgent chaotic passages. Singers pulled chords out of the ether and the two sopranos worked hard to provide a continuous high gloss ending to this extraordinary piece.

Electra Perivolaris recognised the dramatic potential of the Marian Consort as a soloistic ensemble for her new work. Taking texts nine centuries apart from the Welsh poet Heather Dohollau and Saint Hildegard von Bingen, A Winged Woman is a vision of an angel pulled backwards by the past, full of self-doubt and unable to face the present. The altos dominated an extended opening passage for interweaving female voices before all joined in, the sound pastoral and delicate. Sudden strident passages passed themes around before more muted tones arrived drifting down to silence. Voices soared at the end, with the altos having the very last word in this dramatic work, Perivolaris smiling broadly as she took her bow.

In this very building in May 1559, John Knox preached his famous sermon against idolatry, after which the congregation stoned the priest, stripped the Kirk of ornament and went on the rampage. To hear this thrilling Renaissance music echoing round the ancient walls was a delightfully subversive twist, recognition of the heroic efforts to copy and preserve the sacred music.  A terrific concert was rounded off by a spine-tingling encore of James MacMillan’s O Radiant Dawn.