Aldeburgh Festival: Exaudi

Heavens! The Italian sacred choral tradition didn't fizzle out sometime in the late eighteenth century after all. As performed by the extraordinarily accomplished young singers of Exaudi, the twentieth century produced works of stunning beauty and surprising quality - arguably comparable to those of Gesualdo and Monteverdi.

Exaudi, Aldeburgh Festival, Orford Church, 9th June

Heavens! The Italian sacred choral tradition didn't fizzle out sometime in the late eighteenth century after all.

As performed by the extraordinarily accomplished young singers of Exaudi, the twentieth century produced works of stunning beauty and surprising quality - arguably comparable to those of Gesualdo and Monteverdi.

The programme juxtaposed reasonably familiar religious works of the latter two with astonishing pieces by Sciarrino, Castiglioni, Scelsi and Nono - a sort of agony and ecstasy expressed through Italian hymns ancient and modern.

Salvatore Sciarrino was directly influenced by Carol Gesualdo. A neat coupling of both their Tenebrae Responsories showed the compositional debt owed by the one to the other in spite of the four centuries separating them.

The differences were intriguing as well, not least Sciarrino's brinkmanship use of silences.

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Niccolo Castiglioni's Hymne for 12 voices was shockingly beautiful and for me the jaw dropping surprise in the programme.

From the astonishing opening notes passage for the sopranos, this piece treated the words to the Stabat Mater as if they were water, gliding from one singer to be completed by another.

But such fluidity did not mask the pain of the words, rather it accentuated the grief in its slurring intensity.

In the mouths of the eight men and four women of Exaudi, this was spine-tingling and spirit-reviving stuff.

Giacinto Sclesi's Tre canti sacri for eight voices comprises three tight little motets, ingenuously picked out both through echoes of earlier polyphonic techniques and a more modernist concentration on single notes by each singer.

Luigi Nono's Sara dolce tacere is a heavily discordant piece as if a religious service, led by worker-priests, had been transported into the middle of a metal bashing factory.

This is not really that surprising as the aristocratic by birth but communist by choice composer consistently sought to undermine bourgeois norms in all their arenas.

Exaudi ensured this was not a wholly conflicting experience.

It seems almost churlish to leave mention of the performance of Claudio Monteverdi's works to last, but it was that kind of concert.

Exaudi was precise and fulsome in Adoramus te, Christe and Beatus vir secondo (both for six voices), and jaunty and yearning in turn for two madrigals from Selva morale e spirituale, where they were conducted from the keyboard by conductor James Weeks.

Paul Simon

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