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New York Polyphony's UK Debut at Cadogan Hall

New York Polyphony

By James Potter


Matching ties. Sharp suits. As they strode onto Cadogan Hall's stage, New York Polyphony were already living up to their image, one hand-tailored to New York's intellectual, social-media savvy hipsters. It wasn't long before they proved that style went hand-in-hand with substance, in a programme outstanding in vocalism and musicality.

Already well-established in their homeland after six years and several successful discs, this was the first UK outing for the group. The nearest local analogy, in makeup and repertoire, is probably the long-running Hilliard Ensemble, also composed of four male singers. Like them, New York Polyphony have carefully fostered relationships with contemporary composers, notably on the disc 'Tudor City', repertoire from which formed most of the first half of this evening's concert.

Groups such as this rely heavily on an understanding of the acoustic of every building in which they perform. Given the wet, boomy reverberation on the recording of 'Tudor City', it was initially something of a shock to hear this music on Cadogan Hall's dry, empty stage. Presented with nowhere to hide, as it were, many groups used to singing in 'comfortable' church acoustics might flounder, but the honest sound of the hall revealed fine singing and also what the CD occluded: attention to detail. The four singers, largely accomplished soloists in their own right, were consistently musical, even in the exceptionally long-breathed lines of Crecquillon's Lamentations of Jeremiah. Intonation rarely soured, and the last chords had the unmistakeable, glorious ring of a perfectly-tuned fifth. Little details came across beautifully – the dramatic haloing of words such as 'rosarum' (roses) in Dunstable's Speciosa facta es, or the name of Jesus in Lambe's Stella caeli.

These selections from the flowering of English polyphony in the early Renaissance were complemented by Andrew Smith's beautiful, post-medieval meditations on this extraordinary music. Described at one point by the group as its 'unofficial fifth member', it is clear that his style fits the singers like a glove. Particularly successful was a performance of the 'Worcester Fragments' – snatches of polyphony discovered on the backs of parchments subsequently reused by cannibal scribes for another tome. These were preceded by Smith's Flos regalis, a gem which highlighted the composer's love for the rhetoric of the polyphony into which it dovetailed exquisitely. The same composer's Surrexit Christus opened the programme, moving swiftly from chant into drones and organum-influenced harmonies.

If the first half of the programme had me in mind of the Hilliard Ensemble, the second cut loose a little in a way more reminiscent of that 'other' great British a cappella ensemble, the King's Singers. This was more obviously concert repertoire, opening with four choral songs by Schubert, which were followed by a 'response' composed by Gregory Brown to a commission from the group. The Schubert made a pleasing contrast to the polyphony of the first half, with bouncing joy in 'Youth's Delight' and a lilting lullaby in 'Love'. Brown's 'response', Abschied vom Leser, was an interesting riff on what had come before, maintaining the structural impetus of Schubert's pieces, but in a contemporary harmonic idiom. Brown's atmospheric arrangement of an American folk tune followed, The Dying Californian, a song from the time of the Gold Rush, given a sympathetic harmonic covering that resulted in a very effective performance.

Closing events was Janequin's rip-roaring madrigal, La guerre, a sixteenth-cenutry musical depiction of the battle of Marignan in which the French routed the Swiss. From the buzzing and whistling of weapons and missiles to the rather unsympathetic depiction of the Swiss envoy at the end, the group obviously had enormous fun which they had no difficulty in sharing with the audience. Possessed of immensely confident musicality, solid blend, and no small amount of charm – even if the many imprecations to 'tweet' the group were probably put to the wrong audience – we can only hope that, undeterred by a slightly disappointing turnout tonight, the group will be seen more often on this side of the Atlantic.