New consort in a crammed program

HOTHEADS AND LOVERS

Castalia

Australian Digital Concert Hall

Thursday April 7, 2022

Louis Hurley, Chloe Lankshear, Philip Murray, Simon Martyn-Ellis, Amy Moore, Stephanie Dillon, Christopher Watson

There’d be those who think that we should always find room for another vocal consort; others might think that you’d need to be pretty good to start such a body, given the high standard of some ensembles these days. With regard to standards, I’m not talking about a creditable fact of musical life in Australia: the best that’s currently on offer here is several levels lower in quality than what’s coming out of England, America, the Baltic states and Japan. The first consort of voices that I ever heard live was that headed by Alfred Deller which performed in Wilson Hall (1964?) when I was an undergraduate; with very few exceptions, even from big-name internationals, it’s been downhill since then.

So I’m a tad jaundiced when such an ensemble announces itself, even when it arrives with lashings of enthusiasm. Here comes Castalia, taking its name from my favourite Delphic spring. This online recital seems to have been a recording of the group’s debut performance at the aMBUSH Gallery in Waterloo, Sydney on February 12 this year. Which rather surprised me, although it shouldn’t have; I was labouring under the pre-conception that this recital would be live, like most of the Australian Digital Concert Hall events that I experience. In looking up the ensemble’s website to identify the individual singers, matching names to faces, I came upon some ‘reviews’ of the February 12 program – published observations that, like so much similar writing these days, has nothing to do with criticism but more with offering ludicrously inflated praise alongside a dearth of information about the work attempted.

In an attempt to demonstrate versatility, the Castalia sextet gave us a mixture of the time-honoured and the very new (well, almost). We heard 21 pieces in all, two of them instrumental from theorboist/lutenist Simon Martyn-Ellis; most of the madrigals emerged from across the Renaissance (surprise, surprise), with a throwback to Landini and a trio of throw-forwards – to American writer Caroline Shaw’s 2016 setting of a Renaissance text, to Italian historical tear-off Salvatore Sciarrino’s 2008 Rosso, cosi rosso, and to the still-desperately contemporary Englishman Michael Finnissy and his take on a mad scene, Quel ‘no’ crudel of 2012. Too much? Despite the pretty seamless co-ordination of personnel, the experience proved rather opaque as pieces melded into each other, despite the audience’s insistence on applauding every one. Castalia had organized its program in seven sections, but the temptation to clap when silence broke out was too great to be resisted.

As the first of their Dolcissimi collation, the group worked through Arcadelt’s Il bianco e dolce cigno, a solo female voice singing the verse through before the other three lines joined in for a restatement with lute underpinning; a gentle, modest first gambit. Gesualdo’s Luci serene e chiare made a telling platform for Chloe Lankshear‘s soprano; the work is not as difficult as some of the Prince of Venosa’s effusions and the five singers handled its demands with ease, making a fine passage out of the central homophonic O miracol d’amore across bars 38 to 40. Something went wrong in the later stages of Strozzi’s Silentio nocivo where all lines had their final turn with affetuose from bar 107 on; an early entry, possibly. Last in this opening group, Monteverdi’s Si ch’io vorrei morire lacked dynamic variety in its opening pages but an erotic suggestion from the second tenor line at Ahi bocca perked up a rather staid reading of this ambiguous marvel.

As an odd opening to the second grouping, Primavera, Martyn-Ellis performed the first of Piccinini’s chiaconne, which is agreable enough to be Spring-suggestive. One of my many defects is that I can’t read tablature but it seemed to me that this reading was a few variants short; as well, the soprano quaver (for want of a better word) runs occasionally suffered from a mis-step., and the final bars sounded tame. Both tenors (Louis Hurley, Christopher Watson) worked through another truncation in Landini’s Ecco la primavera with Lankshear providing a supporting tambour – the whole medieval intrusion negotiated very rapidly and gaining little by the tenor substitution for a more resonant bass timbre. Another Monteverdi rounded off this segment: Io mi son giovinetta. This is another buoyant and bouncy stream of inventive responses to a text (by Boccaccio?) with an ambiguous, possibly minatory ending.

Augelli opened appropriately enough with Casulana’s Vaghi amorose augelli, its original four vocal lines reduced to a middle register-rich duet for Stephanie Dillon‘s mezzo and lute. A clever balance followed with Settimia Caccini’s Cantan gl’augelli for which soprano Amy Moore was accompanied by Martyn-Ellis’s theorbo, although I found this treatment to be pretty strict in metre but gifted with an elegantly contrived conclusion. The first of the three contemporary works ended this bracket: Caroline Shaw’s Dolce cantavi for three female voices to a text by a Renaissance contessa. In a pretty continuous chordal movement, the composer has produced a clever piece of mimicry, her piece distinguished by an individual modulatory quirk or two and slotting into its environment here with remarkable facility.

Up next, a Crudelta grouping, beginning with yet another solo, this time from tenor Watson with a rich bass support from theorbo for Giulio Caccini’s Amor, io parto. Yet another instance of contrasting rates of activity, this song impressed for its rhythmic curvaceousness with some intriguing ornamentation; was that a 1610 Vespers-type set of repeated quavers on the final A in bar 26? Strangely, the following Crudel acerba by Arcadelt came over as emotionally bland, despite an increased vocal expansion to a quintet with lute support. A pity, as the setting is a potentially sonorous plaint. Finishing the hard-done-by nature of this segment, the group presented an intriguing rarity by Sigismondo d’India: Se tu, Silvio crudel. After a solid solo from Lankshear, the madrigal broadened out into five parts and a textural contrast between rapid block chords and interleaving duets, the whole a dramatic highlight handled with some welcome urgency.

Who better than Gesualdo to kick off a set called Infiammare? Castalia gave a reliable reading of ‘Merce!’ grido piangendo, treating its chromatic shifts and shocks with excellent ease, making a sensible creature out of the infamous Moro, dunque tacendo bars (12-17) and sailing through the remarkable shifts that begin at bar 28. My only quibble came with the last chord which I would have liked to be sustained longer – a safe arrival after a whale of a journey. Sciarrino’s study in red asked for a vocal quintet (all singers bar Hurley), proving to be strong on glissandi and some pointillist bursts, the work heavily atmospheric, although I was left in the dark as to what was being achieved. Much the same for Finnissy’s restless duet with Lankshear and Moore chasing each other’s cues in a high tessitura with some squeals and squalls to unsettle your expectations. The composer’s vocabulary remains as fluent and acerbic as in earlier instrumental pieces that I’ve come across: these latter were extremely challenging to examine and penetrate, although the actual outcomes didn’t sound anywhere near as aurally confrontational as they looked. Strozzi’s L’amante modesto enjoyed brisk handling – and it is substantial, peppered with sudden changes in timbre and rhythm that might have brought out the best in all six singers if the lower lines like that of Philip Murray had been more clear in articulation. A slight error of timing disrupted the flow at about bar 121 but I couldn’t trace the fault.

The solitary occupant of a Tirsi e Clori segment was Monteverdi’s Rimanti in pace; a bit puzzling, as the dialogue of the madrigal is between Thyrsis and Phyllis. For this piece, Lankshear rested, as did Martyn-Ellis; they were sadly missed when some of the chord work impressed as skimpy, possibly due to passing uncertainty in the middle voices. But it is a solid work, demanding in its occasionally transparent scoring.

Finally, we came to Sospiri, beginning with Capirola’s Recerchar primo; not a really happy experience with some passages of uneven delivery and several muffed notes that proved too obtrusive to be ignored. First of the Verdolets, Quante dolceca amore, has been recorded by Watson who sang it with lute support. Both musicians demonstrated a well-honed partnership with a fetching breadth of phrasing throughout this short work. Then all singers joined in for Ultimi miei sospiri, a splendid sample of emotional self-flagellation couched in limpid and mobile textures that gave this recital-exhibition a well-honed, surprise-free ending.