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Dunedin Consort, Mulroy, Wigmore Hall review - songs of love old and new | reviews, news & interviews

Dunedin Consort, Mulroy, Wigmore Hall review - songs of love old and new

Dunedin Consort, Mulroy, Wigmore Hall review - songs of love old and new

First-rate chamber choir explore contemporary and Renaissance approaches to amour

Dunedin Consort, conducted by its Associate Director Nicholas Mulroy, performs at London's Wigmore Hall on Wednesday 15 May 2024© The Wigmore Hall Trust

The sixteen voices of the Dunedin Consort raided the large store of music inspired by the Song of Songs and the sonnets of Petrarch in a sensual programme at the Wigmore Hall last night. Combining the very old and the very new it offered a range of perspectives on texts that have attracted composers over centuries, and showed off the ensemble as one of the best in the business.

I was not entirely convinced by the decision to put (most of) the newer pieces in the first half, and the older in the second. I prefer it when this kind of programme throws up unlikely but revealing juxtapositions. Indeed director Nicholas Mulroy, who spoke interestingly and fluently throughout the programme, made connections between the Victoria and new Caroline Shaw at the one point where old and new came into direct contact.

I really enjoyed the pieces that bookended the first half. James MacMillan’s Behold, you are beautiful,  my love was written in 2018 for the wedding of his son, and has a lovely mantra-like repetition of the title line, initially from off-stage voices, that grew into something bigger and then receded back to one voice.

The three pieces that followed were, well, fine, but didn’t really grab me. I’ve never been won over by Gavin Bryars’s choral music, and A la dolce ombra de le belle frondi (2006) moved at one pace, in one textural register, mostly channelling Bruckner with the occasional unexpected harmonic lurch. Biancamaria Furgeri (b.1935) found more life in music for the upper voices alone but without hitting on anything too memorable, and while Stephanie Martin’s Rise up, my love (2012) at last offered some textural variety in her “Take us, the foxes” section, it outstayed its welcome and became a bit twee, a bit The Good Life.The Dunedin Consort and Nicholas MulroyTarik O’Regan’s Scattered Rhymes (2006), the biggest piece in the whole evening and the best, pitted a solo quartet singing Petrarch against the other singers intoning 14th century English love poetry. The textures were often dense and fragmentary, but I loved the richness of the sounds and the strong musical personality I had missed in the previous pieces. It wasn’t comfortable listening at times, but had substance and a deep exploration of the choral medium. The stillness of the second section gave way to a riotous finale which built up a real momentum over accented syllabic recitation, one of the few really fast passages in the whole evening, and one that brought a huge smile to Nicholas Mulroy’s face in the final bars.

It is notable that Mulroy was billed as “director” and not “conductor” as he was often barely doing anything, guiding, leading the way, but never imposing his will or bossing things. His presence was always reassuring but he kept out of the way, offering what the singers needed and no more – support for an entry here, tempo guidance there – but with the lightest of touches, a brilliantly minimalist approach that others could learn from.

The second half went back to the Renaissance, for polychoral waves sweeping across the stage in the Raffaella Aleotti, a warmer Palestrina than we are sometimes used to some lustrous and chocolatey Willaert from the men (pictured above) and insistent and obsessive Clemens.

Caroline Shaw’s Companion Planting, written for the Dunedin Consort, came between some extraordinary Guillaume Bouzignac (1587-1643) – I wonder if Poulenc knew his music? – and big-boned Victoria. Like the O’Regan, Shaw’s piece has a clear musical identity, although it was simple and transparent where the O’Regan was complex, its hypnotising rocking and repeating rising chord sequence being unmistakeably Shaw. The singing was, as throughout the programme, alert to the stylistic demands of the piece, vivid and committed.

@bernardlhughes

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