THE Armonico Consort, based in Warwick, is the pride and joy of musical ensembles in the West Midlands. For many years, the region boasted only one early-music ensemble of top rank, Ex Cathedra. But since Christopher Monks founded Armonico in 2001, the group has attained not just regional, but national, status.
Its celebrity derives from several features. It is the promoter of not just first-rate Baroque recitals, but also dynamic “new” opera ventures, of which Too Hot to Handel, a witty send-up starring the superlative countertenor William Towers in a production by the director Emma Rivlin, was among the most inspired productions I have seen in years.
But Armonico’s reputation also stems from its outstanding youth work, bracketed together as the Armonico (AC) Academy. Not only does this set up and train choirs in schools where there has previously been little or no music: it engages them in music drama, too. “Musical in a day” is what it says, from scratch to performance, except that the children devise all the ideas; and very often they are very clever at it.
Its after-school choirs reach across the primary and secondary levels, from ages seven to 14 (everyone welcome, no auditions). All this comes under the watchful eye, and with the expertise, of Armonico’s teaching specialists.
It is an impressive roster of activity. But to the forefront are Armonico’s often dazzling concerts, many, over the years, given in conjunction with the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble, whose distinctive playing even ran off with the laurels at Armonico’s latest offering. Both in St Mary’s, Warwick, and later in Malvern, at the Malvern Theatres, close to the Priory Church, Christopher Monks steered his accomplished and questing choir into an exploration of the Gabrielis, uncle and nephew, Andrea (c.1510-86) and Giovanni (c.1554-1612).
The repertoire was different for each event. In Warwick, in a late-Christmas celebration, Monks focused on motets by Giovanni, launching with a Jubilate, adding a Magnificat, and including such joyous, enchanting texts as “Hodie Christus natus est” and “O Magnum Mysterium”. If the pioneering Giovanni, whose music is a generation more sophisticated than his uncle’s (both were an example to Monteverdi), had never written a note, he would earn our admiration as teacher of two of the true greats: Michael Schulz, best-known by his Latinised name Michael Praetorius, and Heinrich Schütz.
But it was on the uncle, Andrea, that Monks and his choral-instrumental forces concentrated in the Malvern concert. I must admit to feeling uneasy about the first two items, an opening Kyrie (à 5) and Christe Eleison (8 voices): there was an edge to the singing, not necessarily a bad thing, that was perhaps accentuated by a slightly unyielding acoustic. The lack of a uniform timbre which coincided with it was not always attractive; here, it was rather as if this youthful and spirited choir were still cranking up.
There were no such problems at all thereafter: a perfect mesh of sound, fine enunciation that was clarified by that same acoustic, and some satisfying interplay between, or doubling by, voices with instruments. The security of the bass line, as on all styles of music except certain medieval motets, was crucial.
Much was owed to the hard-working and sensitive double bassist Andrew Durban; often (not always) he was doubled by his cellist colleague, and by the memorable bass sackbut player Adrian France, head of brass at Newcastle University, who, like his colleagues (especially the stylish cornett soloist Gawain Glenton on top line), proved a virtuoso.
In several of these Mass sections (he composed seven settings), Andrea Gabrieli unfolds what amounts to a virtual Adagio, and Monks took the risk of honouring this by embarking on perhaps apt slow pacing. In some respects, this worked, and it proved a marvellous way of hearing — and ingesting — these intriguingly constructed works (extracts from an even fuller Mass, in 12 and then 16 parts, followed, in which the choir divided with impressive results).
What made this overall performance — more Christmas fare, in the form of Andrea’s motets “Angelus ad pastores” and “O sacrum convivium” followed, the plainsong underlay often strikingly evident and laid bare — was the accompanying narration, which was given by Sir Martyn Lewis. Heard in the flesh, he is even more impressive and wonderfully articulated than in his famous descriptions of royal events on television.
Here we were taken into the very cradle of the birth of the Gabrielis’ Venice, from the early years when the historical Veneti were driven off the land by marauding barbarians, and fled to the north Adriatic islands that later, much dredged, became “La (Repubblica) Serenissima”, to the sad departure of the last Doge in 1797, when the great seafaring nation and bastion against the Turks lost out to another marauder, Napoleon.
No one could have made a finer job of delivering this most welcome and alluring of history lessons. We were enthralled. The whole idea of enmeshing the Gabrielis’ pioneering experiments with the colourful tale of this (like Poland) monarch-electing nation state made for a truly inspired evening. The Armonico choir rose to the occasion, and time and again, even in Giovanni Gabrieli’s six-part “Omnes Gentes”, we could feel the full splendour of the antiphonal recesses of St Mark’s opening up before us.