English vocal ensemble The Gesualdo Six formed in 2014 and is led by composer, conductor, singer and organist Owain Park. Fading is the group’s third recording for Hyperion and follows hot on the heels of Christmas, released late in 2019.
Like its predecessor, Fading consists of a cappella works taken almost entirely from two eras: the Renaissance and the present day. This is not the most obvious combination nor easiest to pull off successfully, but Fading is, happily, a triumph on multiple fronts.
The impeccably chosen programme is named for one of two haunting Arabesques by Joanna Marsh (b. 1970), but also makes reference to the ancient Christian service of Compline, observed at the end of the day as the final component of the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours. Prayers and hymns composed for Compline often make reference to the transition between light/day and dark/night, sometimes including exhortations to the Lord for safe passage through to the new dawn (with night also a metaphor for death).
Thomas Tallis (c.1505–1585), Carlo Gesualdo (c.1561–1613), Luca Marenzio (1553/4–1599) and Jonathan Seers (b. 1954) engage directly with these themes; less obvious references (to night, for instance) include a lullaby by William Byrd (1539/40–1623) and four mysteriously beautiful Estonian lullabies by Veljo Tormis (1930–2017). Other highlights include the sublime Versa est in luctum by Alonso Lobo (1555–1617), written for the funeral of King Philip II of Spain in 1598.
But an outlier is the real surprise: at one minute and 25 seconds, O Ecclesia by medieval Europe’s most famous polymath, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), is Fading’s shortest work. It’s also the earliest by a good three centuries, the product of a thriving monastic culture of holy women and an entirely different historical milieu to that of all its musical companions included here, although beautifully situated among them. O Ecclesia is ephemeral and transcendent, an elusive melody that curls away from a low drone and evaporates; a vision so brief one might doubt its existence at all. It is a truly extraordinary, heart-stopping moment.
These performances are superb: precision, warmth, power and delicacy united in an utterly beguiling whole, all the while maintaining perfect definition as each vocal tonality inhabits its own sphere. This is further enhanced by a very high-quality recording from St George’s Church in Chesterton, Cambridge, built in 1939 to a design by Thomas H. Lyon. Its basilican plan with high, cathedral-like ceilings has made it a sought-after recording venue. Its glorious acoustics are on show in spades here, with a rich, thick presence and just the right amount of reverberation for these glorious voices to soar heavenwards.