Thrilling, cleansing, uplifting

Huelgas Ensemble, Blythburgh Church, Aldeburgh Festival, June 26th

The Huelgas Ensemble, founded in Basel in 1970 by Paul Van Nevel and still their conductor, originally specialized in modern music but soon changed to Middle Ages and Renaissance where they have built a considerable reputation. In the magnificent and appropriate setting of Blythburgh Church an attentive and appreciative audience were treated to vocal music from the sixteenth century by the eclectic mixture of Jacob Clement, Nicolas Gombert, Thomas Ashewell and Orlandus de Lassus.

Clement’s Qui consalubator and Adieu, mon Esperance were sung with great purpose and precision, the remarkably adventurous clashes (sometimes disconcertingly so) and resolutions opening up an almost hitherto unknown harmonic world. Likewise for the splendid craftsmanship on display in Gombert’s Je prens conge de mes amours and the nerve-tingling dissonances.

Orlandus de Lassus is probably the best known of the four, his music closest to the style of Palestrina. His five–part Lamentations for Good Friday contains some extraordinarily rich sounds and probing tensions between modal and tonal harmony, with a particularly eloquent and satisfying final resolution.

Would it be too provocative in these football-crazed weeks to give pride of place to the Englishman Thomas Ashewell? In his Missa Ave Maria, performed on either side of the interval we were confronted with a wall of virtuoso English Polyphony, delivered with a purity and intensity that seemed to transport one back centuries. The rhythmic complexity was evident yet unforced, the harmonies perfectly balanced and, most compelling of all, a simple but telling fervour in the performance as a whole. Thrilling, uplifting, cleansing - one could go on. One can only salute the musical skills and stamina of these performers and their conductor and their ability create such searing emotion.

Gareth Jones