The Gesualdo Six are the latest all-male, one-to-a-part a cappella vocal ensemble to emerge from the English choral scene, and this is their recording debut. They sport not one but two countertenors, who occasionally double up on the top line in five-voice pieces; and unlike some of ensembles of its kind, the director, Owain Park, does not himself sing (at least not here). As one has come to expect given such a pedigree, the vocal quality is very fine, not to say superb, and when the music calls for an extrovert approach (as do Byrd’s Vigilate or, very differently, Dunstable’s four-voice Veni Sancte Spiritus) the singers respond with an athleticism and a feel for pacing that isn’t perhaps so common. The close miking does justice to the contrapuntal details, maintaining clarity in all but the densest writing.
Promise in spades, then, but reservations also. One notes in the more sombre pieces (which make up the bulk of the music) a tendency for tempos to decelerate so that what began slowly finally verges on the ponderous. This may be symptomatic of a reverential attitude that extends not just to the most famous pieces (Byrd’s Ne irascaris, Domine and Tallis’s Suscipe quaeso) but to programming. An anthology of English motets needs little justification, but this has an air of ‘greatest hits’ about it – especially when the two outliers, Dunstable and Tomkins, are each represented by one very famous piece. The contrast of styles can at times jar, for example when Morley’s frothy, canzonetta-like ‘motet’ follows Dunstable; more seriously, it’s a pity for such a talented ensemble to introduce itself so conservatively. (Equally jarring is the edit on the final chord of Byrd’s Vigilate.) In short, I look forward to hearing them in a more focused recital.