Opera + Classical Music Reviews

In Winter’s House: The Gesualdo Six @ National Centre for Early Music, York

5 December 2021

Old and new music with a Christmas theme delights the ear in York.

The Gesualdo Six

The Gesualdo Six (Photo: NCEM)

Established in 1997, the York Early Music Christmas Festival focuses on music associated with Advent and Christmas, and this year’s concerts are a particularly delectable offering. The 12th century church of St Margaret in Walmgate, York’s uber-trendy / edgy ‘Restaurant Quartier,’ could not be bettered as the setting for this rarefied display of vocal perfection by the Gesualdo Six.

The combination of voices – one each of countertenor and baritone, two of tenor and bass – is so skilfully used and the harmony is so perfectly achieved that it’s almost impossible to select highlights, but the exquisitely beautiful traditional carols ‘Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen’ and ‘Maria durch ein dornwald ging’ were both remarkable for their sense of hushed awe and serenity. The lovely image at the close of the latter – the rosebush coming into bloom as Mary passes – was sublimely achieved.

The ensemble’s programme always combines the well loved – such as ‘Veni Emmanuel’ in a rousing arrangement by Philip Lawson – with the obscure or unexpected, so that on this occasion the traditional was contrasted with 21st century pieces by Sally Beamish and Joanna Marsh. Beamish’s In the Stillness beautifully evokes the atmosphere of Katrina Shepherd’s poem describing a small church in the midst of snowy fields whilst the parishioners await “a new morn;” it was sung with subdued yet fervent tone.

“…rarefied display of vocal perfection by the Gesualdo Six”

In Winter’s House, Joanna Marsh’s setting of Jane Draycott’s poem which gives the concert its title, is a fascinating piece which uses the lower voices in a unique way, its contrasting darkness and light allowing us to imagine the “…small quiet house at the turn in the lane / where the darkness gives way to light.” The blending of the voices here was absolute perfection.

The group’s director, Owain Park, introduced the works with jovial wit, and an appreciative, almost full house was rewarded with a very jolly encore in the shape of ‘Jingle Bells’ which sent us out into the cold night in the best of spirits. If you can’t be in York for these superb concerts, you can still enjoy them online – this one is available from 17 December – 13 January for £10, with tickets on sale now. A ‘box set’ of the entire festival is also available at £40. You might not get the full ‘Christmassy’ atmosphere of the church, but you’ll be treated to some world-class performances.

Access to the online concerts can be found here.

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In Winter’s House: The Gesualdo Six @ National Centre for Early Music, York