An octet performs with a painter and canvas on either side
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Review: Giovanni Consort ⋅
St George’s College, May 4 ⋅
Review by Leon Levy ⋅

Expectations were high for the opening recital of the Giovanni Consort’s 2019 concert series. Soprano Brianna Louwen, recently returned from the UK with considerable credentials, took the bold directorial approach of seeking to reflect the themes in tableau form as a means of taking the music and words to an enhanced level.

Christ (actor Paul Rowe) was led to the cross as Gesualdo’s O Vos Omnes commenced and, largely swathed in black, he and his background black panel became the canvas upon which artist Kristie Coakley expressed her interpretation. Later, during a section of Monteverdi’s opera Lamento d’Arianna, Arianna (Brianna Louwen), in billowing white, took up her position and received the same treatment.

Brianna Louwen as Arianna, painted by Kristie Coakley. Photo Susie Penco.

Gesualdo and Monteverdi, 16th century composers hailing from what was eventually to become unified Italy, largely faded from view until comparatively recently, despite the prominence they achieved during their lifetimes. Gesualdo, with his bold use of chromaticism, unexpected progressions and challenging dissonances, perhaps took Renaissance music as far as it could go; Monteverdi on the other hand looked firmly towards the new style of Baroque composition.

The opening work, Gesualdo’s brief O Vos Omnes of 1603, is a striking example of the composer’s ability to incorporate the unanticipated to most stirring effect and it provided an inspired start to the evening. Then followed the two major works on the programme, Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responsories for Holy Saturday and Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna, the latter a surviving excerpt from a lost opera set as a madrigal. A bracket of madrigals by both composers brought the short recital to a conclusion.

One would have had to go far to hear singing of such accomplishment. With one voice to a part, no conductor and no instrumental support, there was no hiding imperfection… and there was truly none to hide.  The octet was impeccable both in ensemble and exposed line, and cadences were a joy to behold, miracles of balance and poise.

As regards the non-musical component, the Consort was extraordinarily unaffected by the necessarily continuous movement of the artist, who made herself as inconspicuous as was possible in the circumstances. On the negative side, the evolving scenes before us tended to impose a rather homogenous atmosphere of unrelieved misery on the proceedings, and the contrasts that one might have expected to hear between the two composers did not readily emerge.

While both Gesualdo and Monteverdi have secured their places in musical history, performances of their works are sufficiently rare as to make the Giovanni Consort’s programme greatly welcome, especially in such technically immaculate performances.

Pictured top: the Giovanni Consort at St George’s College. Photo Bourby Webster.

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