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GRAMOPHONE (07/2022)
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Reviewer :
Alexandra Coghlan

The Belfast-based vocal ensemble Sestina was founded by Mark Chambers in 2011. A decade later they have released their debut recording. ‘Master & Pupil’ is a musical roam across Europe spanning some two centuries from 1470 to 1650. At the centre of the musical map is Claudio Monteverdi – the hub from which all the various musical roads converge and emerge. The complex web of musical influence and legacy is the guiding principle that weaves Josquin motets, Cipriano de Rore madrigals and Salamone Rossi’s lively, brink-of-Baroque sonatas into a rich musical cloth.

Sestina’s voices are joined by a crack team of musicians, and it’s the instrumental numbers that leap out first: the wonderfully dusky blend of woodwind in Rossi’s Sinfonia grave, cornettos picking out bright lines against the foggy depth of dulcian and sackbuts, and the fruity ground bass and frisking ornamentation in the composer’s Sonata duodecima sopra la Bergamasca; the soft curlicues of solo strings in Monteverdi’s De la bellezza, melting and dissolving into the voices; the gilded Venetian glow of the opening Sinfonia to Giovanni Rigatti’s eightvoice Mass. The latter is just one of plenty of surprises – works you find yourself making a note to follow up. The lesser-travelled musical roads here do much more than just emphasise the solidity of the highways.

The voices themselves are always graceful, tasteful – perhaps to a fault. Their neat, pretty sound works well for the blanched purity of Mouton’s motet-homage to his teacher Antoine de Févin, Qui ne regrettoit, and the delicacy of Josquin’s upper-voices Recordare virgo mater. Instrumental doubling coaxes slightly more body out of them in Monteverdi’s vibrant Dixit Dominus and Giovanni Gabrieli’s 10-part Maria virgo.

But if you didn’t know the erotic charge of the text of Giaches de Wert’s Tirsi morir volea (in which imagery of death and ‘little death’ rub suggestively up against one another), would you ever know it from this polite performance? I’m not sure. It’s a similar story with much of the secular repertoire, which gives us pearl but no sonic grit.

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