In the intimate setting of Durham Cathedral’s stunning Chapter House, the Dunelm Consort treated us to a variety of Italian madrigals from the 1580s and 90s.  The programme effectively alternated between madrigals by Monteverdi, Marenzio and Gesualdo, and the repertoire showcased the heights of innovation achieved by each composer, be it Monteverdi’s exuberant melisma or Gesualdo’s emotionally intense harmonic landscape.  In each case, the Consort proved themselves able to handle some challenging repertoire with professionalism and an extremely accomplished level of musicianship.

The group of singers was split into two individual consorts of five singers for the purpose of the concert, and both consorts received artistic guidance from EXAUDI, under the direction of James Weeks, in the lead up to the performance. The unique vocal blend exhibited by both consorts, as well as the sensitivity with which each individual madrigal text was treated, instantly stood out in the resulting performance. With EXAUDI having recently released a disk of Italian madrigals, their guidance was perfectly suited to the repertoire of this performance.

The concert opened with a lively rendition of Monteverdi’s ‘Quel Augellin, che canta,’ from the fourth book of madrigals. This piece was delivered with an exuberance which brilliantly reflected the sensuous text by Guarini to which the music was set. A particular standout was the quaver movement in the upper parts, executed with precision by Eleanor Hunt and Joy Sutcliffe. Clear eye contact was sustained between the singers in such moments of melisma, and as such, the consort was able to ensure that no clarity was lost in the Chapter House acoustic. Bringing an equally assured performance was the second consort, beginning with a stunning rendition of Gesualdo’s ‘Languisce al fin chi da la vite parte.’ This performance typified Gesualdo’s unique compositional character, in which unusual harmonic detailing and chord juxtapositions present a real challenge for singers in terms of bringing out the range of emotional contrasts present in the music. However, the consort handled such challenges with equal precision. Particular commendation must be given to the accuracy of the consort’s intonation throughout some challenging vocal intervals and exposed solo entries. Equal commendation must be given to the intonation in the later performance of Gesualdo’s ‘Io parto’ e non più dissi, che il dolore,’ where a section of imitative descending semiquavers provided a particular vocal challenge. Whilst there were some very minor falters in intonation in this piece, the overall effect was extremely impressive.

Notably, in Monteverdi’s ‘Ma te raccoglie, O Ninfa’, the vocal blend achieved amongst the singers, as well as the exactness of pronunciation, highlighted the text with particular sensitivity. The switch to faster quaver movement towards the end of this piece was achieved with clarity, and the excellent tuning of the final chord was but one moment at which the consort exhibited an outstanding level of musicianship. Both in this madrigal, and the final madrigal of the first half – ‘Dorinda, ah! Diro’ – James Draper and Ben Munden’s tenor lines shone, soaring effortlessly within the texture and providing a real warmth to the blend of this consort.

The second half of the concert opened with a particularly challenging Gesualdo madrigal, which again showcased an excellent precision during faster sections of melisma. Despite some minor slips in intonation amongst the upper parts, this was an impressive performance, which also did a great deal to showcase the maturity of some individual voices, with soprano Natalie Houlston’s vocal lines deserving particular praise. The remainder of the second half continued to alternate between madrigals by Monteverdi and Gesualdo, sung by the respective consorts.

A personal highlight of the second half was Gesualdo’s ‘Chiaro risplender suole.’ In this madrigal, the opening text, translating – ‘My fair sun brightly keeps shining upon everyone, yet to wretched me she is dark and gloomy’ – was set to particularly contrasting harmonic material, and was delivered with great sensitivity by the consort, leaving the audience revelling in the dissonance and constant yearning for resolution which are so emblematic of Gesualdo’s choral works. The closing section of this madrigal deserves further attention, as excellent breath control was exercised by the singers in the lead up to the final resolution, where long vocal lines were sustained at a piano dynamic. Another highlight was the closing madrigal – Monteverdi’s ‘Rimanti in pace’ – in which the singers exercised a particular command over dynamics. The acoustic of the Chapter House was taken advantage of to its full, and it allowed the consort to diminuendo a great deal further than might have been possible in a ‘drier’ venue, enabling an expressive and sensitive command over the text which was simply enchanting.

In summation, this was an excellent concert, and I greatly enjoyed the distinct sounds exhibited by both the ‘Monteverdi’ and ‘Gesualdo’ consorts. I believe the succinct choice of programme was wise, as it consistently favoured quality over quantity, and allowed the consort to understand the music to its full, and bringing out the rich madrigal texts with great sensitivity. Having attended previous Dunelm concerts, I can attest that the standard is consistently high, but it must be said that the use of smaller consorts and their preparatory work with EXAUDI, in this case, allowed for a particular display of musicality and textual nuance, which was perfectly suited to the intimate Chapter House setting.

Oscar Elmon