Alas, attended live performance in London is ending for a while. Benjamin Poore sneaks in under the wire.
The Marian Consort is a relatively young ensemble in the well serviced area of renaissance and early Baroque polyphony, but one with plenty of fresh ideas and inventive energies. During the first lockdown the group produced two striking pieces of digital media, blending filmed performance, poetry, and ideas – Byrd Song, about the secluded religious music of Catholic William Byrd, shot at Ingatestone Hall, and Cult, which explored depictions of the Virgin Mary. Now back in conventional concert-giving territory at Kings Place, they offered a programme of Advent pieces – diverse versions of Ave Maria texts – that was an inventive and elegant blend of old and new.
‘All Creation Waits’ was carried forward by conductor Rory McCleery’s genial introductions to each piece. One might gripe that such interventions break the spell, but McCleery had great lightness of touch in providing nuggets of context. We learned about wastrel and incompetent singers at St Peters – “we face the same recruitment problems in choirs today”, McCleery teased – and Josquin des Prez’ graffiti in the Vatican choir stalls.
Works by Palestrina and L’Heritier had a jewel-like brightness and definition, with dissonances gleaming not blinding. Poulenc’s famous O magnum mysterium saw all its fruitiest ninths and sevenths spotlighted; a new piece by Gareth Treseder, O Virgo splendens, the text derived from medieval Spanish pilgrims, had a woozy, dreamy quality, with sumptuous harmonies redolent of Scriabin. It was in another contemporary work that shone especially brightly, James Macmillan’s O Radiant Dawn. Here the sound was at its most tart and bracingly Hebridean, with windswept consonants and craggy lyricism.
The Marian Consort has a flexible and inventive sound; McCleery and his colleagues have digested a myriad of traditions and approaches from recent choral history. Sometimes they offered a more traditional blended sound – clean, warm, and without the affected austerity that has become something of a cliche in this music; at others a more raw and unfiltered timbre, like that of John Butt’s Dunedin Consort. As an ensemble there is crafty exploration of the complex relationship between group and solo dynamics in these small-scale works, at times turning up the contrast with the latter to heighten our grasp of the words set.
“The Marian Consort… offered a programme of Advent pieces… that was an inventive and elegant blend of old and new”
McCleery’s direction is understated and unfussy, allowing his musicians space to let their lines tick over and allow the counterpoint to accumulate its own intensity and depth. Climaxes and phrasing felt sculpted but not studied; transitions between sections and speeds – such as those in Palestrina’s multi-part motets – feel as natural as a fresh train of thought, rather than an abrupt new paragraph.
Particularly noteworthy was one excursion into the music of Vicente Lusitano, a Portugese born composer of the late Renaissance who may well lay claim to being the first published Black composer; McCleery began to explore his music in lockdown, which gave him an opportunity to delve into the digitised back catalogues of lesser-known composers. Lusitano’s music – that evening, the motet Inviolata, integra, et casta es, Maria – has rich and compelling inner parts, with creamy and indulgent textures – certainly a substantial meal – and its lyrical energies were given plenty of space to accumulate and settle. McCleery hinted at a future recording, so watch this space.
The evening closed with Pierre Villette, a contemporary of Poulenc, in a final O magnum mysterium, all piquant harmonies and angular inner parts, but radiant nonetheless. Especially remarkable, from a technical point of view, were the rich and luxurious low bass notes of the final chords – a real ‘I’ll have what he’s having’ moment. An encore of Jean Mouton provided the creamiest of finishes to an enchanting concert. Tier three status for London means that it will be their last this year – let’s hope it’s only the briefest hiatus.