The vocal ensemble Exaudi – celebrating its 10th anniversary this year – never fails to demonstrate its remarkable versatility in repertoire ranging from late medieval to bang-up-to-the-minute contemporary. But it’s thanks to the presiding genius of director James Weeks that their programming has such a musical logic, balancing old and new to suit the occasion yet with emphatically no compromise. For this Cheltenham performance, Weeks interlaced songs by Judith Weir, Christopher Fox, Howard Skempton, Stephen Chase and Michael Finnissy with madrigals by the 16th- and 17th-century composers of the golden age, with love their common pursuit.
Anyone seeing the name Weir and, on the basis of reaction to her recent opera, assuming it to be an unfortunate choice of opening number would have been instantly disarmed. The setting of George Herbert’s Love Bade Me Welcome was deceptively simple but telling. Its dialogue between love and the poet’s soul also sowed the seed for two unusual trysting duets between soprano Juliet Fraser and counter-tenor Tom Williams. They combined Hanging Line and Babel, two quite separate movements from Fox’s collection for solo voices, Catalogue Irraisonée, to intriguing effect, with the lilting flow of his A Spousal Verse, setting part of Edmund Spenser’s Epithalamion, underlining the elegant tying-in with the Elizabethans. The same two singers brought a hypnotic charm to Lied, the second in Chase’s sequence of four Jandl Songs, more experimental but convincingly delivered by Exaudi. So, too, were the Skempton and Finnissy songs.
Madrigals by Tomkins, John Ward, Wilbye and Weelkes had some of the melancholy angst of unrequited love to counter lighter, lustier numbers: all were done with equal finesse. Weeks’s introductions, which managed by some clever sleight of language to include musicological nuggets as well as tongue-in-cheek notes, only added to the charm.