The medieval garden was an enchanted place, a place where the beauties of nature took on formal and symbolic qualities, and the perfect setting for the coded artifice of courtly love. Through a carefully selected programme, the Orlando Consort allowed us a peek into the secrets of medieval gardens across Europe, to observe both the rigid formality of the knights and ladies, and much earthier goings-on behind the rose bushes and in the garden shed.

The Orlando Consort
The Orlando Consort

We began in the strange soundworld of 13th-century France, with odd dissonances, unpredictable melodies, and sometimes with several texts being sung concurrently. The opening piece, Rose, liz, printemps, verdure (“Rose, lily, spring, greenery”) by Guillaume de Machaut was appropriately florid, and performed with graceful fluidity by the four singers; and the two anonymous works that followed were so fiendishly complicated that I wished they had been repeated so that I could work out what was going on.

From the elaborate, clever French pieces, we moved to Italy for two much more sensuous duets. O bella rosa, sung by Matthew Venner and Angus Smith, was full of passion: courtly love may have been mostly an elaborate game, but this piece worked itself up to a fever, as the two voices bounced off each other in neat syncopations, before dying away as the poet laments his torments. Alto Matthew Venner was in fine voice here; gliding around through the elaborate opening phrase in an effortless legato.

The programme followed a logical development, bringing us forward through time and across Europe, ending in the Low Countries, at the height of the Renaissance. The music gained in clarity and became harmonically more familiar, and some of the texts became decidedly lewd. The courtly love tradition lingered on, though, in sensuous settings of texts from the Song of Solomon that blurred the boundaries between sacred and secular. Brumel’s tantalisingly short Sicut lilium (“As the lily”) was suffused with fervent devotion, but the Biblical text (“As a lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters”) could easily be applied romantically.

The lines between sacred and secular life were further blurred by the fact that some of the overtly sexual pieces were written by priests, such as En la fuente by Vázquez, a Spanish priest, which depicts a young couple bathing together. The secular pieces about fumblings in the undergrowth were sung with a swinging energy, and seemed to be forerunners to the pastoral delights of English madrigals. Some of the texts didn’t leave much to the imagination, but then we had a surprise: “Let us change the subject, that’s too much singing of love; it is just shouting, let us sing of the pruning-knife” began Sermisy’s Changeons propos and indeed, a humble gardening tool was praised for its role in the production of wine, and Bacchanalian unruliness was hinted at by the words, and in the spirited way they were set and sung.

All good gardens mature over time, and are added to by each new generation, and so the Orlando Consort included two modern works in their English garden. To the lovers’ well by John Casken set a poem by Geoffrey Hill that also made use of medieval Latin texts. The words were darker than the other texts in the concert, and the jagged, fragmentary opening hinted at games gone wrong. Both this and Nicholas Brown’s The lily-white rose bridged the centuries –the dissonances and unpredictability of both pieces reflected what we had already heard from 13th-century France.

As ever, the Orlando Consort performed with immaculate discipline and attention to detail, particularly in their pronunciation. Each voice was as finely controlled and cultivated as a medieval rose, from Matthew Venner’s exquisite high notes, down to Donald Greig’s resonant baritone, which was particularly evident in the rich depths of the final work, Gombert’s Quam pulchra es. Tenor Mark Dobell shone in the opening Machaut, and Angus Smith had a lovely rich opening to Ego flos campi by Clemens non Papa.

Each section of music was introduced by a member of the consort, all four of them having the gift of being able to combine erudition and wit. Just before the end of the concert, Angus Smith explained that the title of this programme always raises questions. The roses and the lilies are obvious, but why whortleberries? He explained that it had been added purely on a whim, and that ever since, he has been hunting for a piece that actually does reference whortleberries. I hope somewhere there is a composer who will rise to the challenge and complete the garden for them.