The Gesualdo Six was founded almost ten years ago and since then it has produced spectacular concerts around the globe and a recording every year since 2018. Their style of singing—perfectly blended vocal harmony, exquisite tuning, inventive phrasing, delicately poised textural clarity—provides a magical accompaniment to the warmth of the Christmas season. Perhaps problematically they had already produced an impressive recording of Christmas pieces in 2019, with arrangements of some of the old favourites such as Jingle bells, Away in a manger, In dulci jubilo etc. The solution? They have turned instead to the period just after Christmas (the Epiphany, 6 January) when the three wise men presented gifts to the Christchild and brought news of him to the world. So the title of this recording refers to the star that they followed rather than a communist newspaper, though 6 January also happens to be Christmas Eve in Russia.
Owain Park has threaded these pieces together with balance and ingenuity by inserting between the polyphonic works five plainsongs taken from the Mass on the Feast of the Epiphany. Chant performances on recordings tend to be somewhat perfunctory and dull, but here each item is performed with marvellous attention to both phrasing, style and message. The strong Introit reflects the coming of the ‘mighty Lord’, the Gradual sparkles with luminous joy at the gifts, the Alleluia evokes praises from the Three Kings, the darkly glittering Offertory offers up its cascading runs like clouds of incense, and the downwardly transposed Communion states simply and quietly the purpose of the visit of the wise men. The singers are at their brilliant best in pieces that demand gentle, embracing harmonic blending—for example in Johannes Eccard’s Maria wallt zum Heiligtum, in Howells’s Here is the little door, and in Mirabile mysterium where the Slovenian composer Handl serves up exotic shifts of chromatic colouring. Oddly the early pieces by Byrd, Lassus and Manchicourt attract neat but slightly matter-of-fact performances. This can be a danger for groups performing such repertoire. Early music does not often provide obvious, goal directed harmonic structures, or patterns of intensity governed by vivid word setting or expressive changes of texture. Nor does it usually display obvious signposts in the shaping of forms that would support our modern preference for ‘structural listening’. Consequently some quite famous modern choral groups (no names) often produce a haphazard wash of pleasing sounds full of effects without discernible causes. Not so The Gesualdo Six: in a work such as Magi veniunt by Clemens non Papa they demonstrate ingeniously and effectively how to evoke a sense of direction and climax by judicious dynamic shading, varied phrasing, alert patterns of intensity and a growing sense of profundity. Other qualities can be heard in the haunting atmosphere of Joanna Marsh’s In winter’s house, and the enticing patterns of utterance in Park’s O send out thy light. There are many engrossing and lovely musical experiences here.