In line with the Auckland Arts Festival’s theme of “courage”, the Gesualdo Six opened their programme The Wishing Tree with those composers from the oppressed Catholic minority of 16th-century England. They began Tallis’ Te lucis ante terminum from back in the nave of Holy Trinity Cathedral, hushed and reverent tones floating effortlessly outwards, before moving slowly forward for the remainder of the programme. 

The Gesualdo Six in Holy Trinity Cathedral, Auckland
© Andi Crown

Right from the outset, one couldn’t help but notice the immaculate blend between the six singers. These first three pieces, formed a compact unit of relatively restrained if exquisite writing, quiet perhaps but full of intensity in this rendition. Of the three, it was the Afflicti pro peccatis nostris of William Byrd that made the greatest impression, its more elaborate part-writing expertly dispatched, the interesting harmonic shifts in Byrd’s music played up nicely. One might think there to be a certain sameness about this repertory, but the Ah, gentle Jesu of the mysterious Sheryngham showed the folly of that line of thinking, structured as it is as a dialogue between the higher and lower parts (representing a repentant sinner and Jesus on the cross), separating and recombining in different textures, full of emotion from the singers.

The group’s director Owain Park is something of a powerhouse; after contributing his resonant bass tones to the opening English works, he switched to conductor for the more rhythmically complex Tomkins and Byrd pieces and then took on high vocal parts as well, as need arose. Astonishingly, none of this affected the blend; the consistency of timbre across this ensemble is pretty astonishing. Despite the small size of the ensemble (a maximum of six as suggested by their name), they never struggled to fill the space; indeed, Byrd’s Vigilate rose to quite a rousing climax indeed, more extroverted than one might have thought possible for such a small group in this repertoire. Both here and in the Tomkins, the sincerity of the word-painting was palpable; one really felt the importance of the text as well as the more purely musical considerations.

The Gesualdo Six
© Andi Crown

In the next group, we were suddenly in quite a different musical word with the secular settings of Josquin Desprez and Antoine Brumel, separated by some linking plainchant. The Gesualdo Six brought a tangible sense of mourning to the falling figurations in Nymphes des bois, and Josquin and Brumel’s very different lamentations. Different configurations of the ensemble brought different piquant timbres to the mix. Countertenor Guy James seemed to take part in just about every number and retained beauty of tone and deep feeling throughout. In the following set of Italian madrigals settings, however, one sometimes felt that the performances, accomplished as they were, could have been a little more unbuttoned, something more in line with the overt melodrama of the texts. But purely musically, the performances were again beyond reproach, the weird harmonies of Gesualdo’s Asciutage i begli occhi proving a particular highlight.

The Gesualdo Six and Auckland Gospel Choir
© Andi Crown

The show finished up with a series of contemporary and 20th-century works that have adapted madrigal-like compositional techniques. The work after which this concert was named, Joby Talbot’s The Wishing Tree, had motifs bouncing between different vocalists as they tackled the angular writing with aplomb. They created great impact with the quiet dignity of Gerda Blok-Wilson’s O little rose, o dark rose and the final Lobster Quadrille from György Ligeti was a hoot, showing a hitherto unseen humorous side to the ensemble. An encore of a traditional Samoan folksong, joined by the Auckland Gospel Choir, rounded out the programme movingly, the Gesualdo Six effortlessly merging with them in quite a different style of performance.