Classical Review: The Renaissance Ensemble St John's Smith Square, London

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The Independent Culture
While alphabetical programme planning might sound preposterous, the grouping together of works by Scheidt, Schein, Schenck and Schutz offers far more than lexicographical neatness or a gilt-edged investment opportunity for Schweppes. The Renaissance Ensemble, giving its debut concert on Wednesday without the benefit of corporate sponsorship, offered an anthology of early 17th-century music from north and south of the Alps that highlighted Italian creativity, German craftsmanship and the peculiar alchemy involved in their union.

Andrew King's shrewd selection of repertoire set masterpieces by Schutz and Monteverdi alongside powerful and attractive works by others, his magical history tour exploring the sacred concerto, with brief, if adventurous, excursions into the instrumental output of Kapsberger, Schenck and Turini. The tenor has shown equal flair in his choice of Renaissance Ensemble colleagues, characters familiar from their work elsewhere and blessed with a sharp sense of Baroque good taste. Even so, it took much of the first half for King and fellow singers Joseph Cornwell and Simon Grant to find a balance between the intimate and extrovert styles of expression demanded especially by Schutz and Schein. Monica Huggett's violin playing, for instance, communicated far more tellingly in Schutz's "Drei schone Dinge seind" than the comparatively reticent vocal trio.

The rich harmonic palette and textual drama of Schutz's "Ich liege und schlafe" clearly appealed to Grant, intelligent in his response to individual words and ready to apply striking gradations of tone colour and emphasis to lines such as "and smash the teeth of the ungodly", an Old Testament sentiment full of meaning to a composer working in Dresden during the Thirty Years War. There was nothing routine here, nor in Jakob Lindberg's account of Giovanni Kapsberger's eccentric Toccata, Arpeggiata and Colascione, the latter recalling the introduction of a Steppenwolf hit. The temperament of Lindberg's chitarrone here, perhaps intentionally tuned to be wild, sounded unhappily wide of the mark in the guitar-like Arpeggiata.

Any initial caution from the singers evaporated in the concert's second half, crowned by King and Lindberg's exquisite reading of Schutz's "O Jesu, nomen dulce". The panache shown by Grant in Monteverdi's "Ab terno ordinata sum" was founded on the singer's confidence in scaling the depths to reach several bottom Cs, and his pristine technical skills were stretched but not unduly troubled by the motet's florid passage work and quicksilver changes of mood.

Although Schutz never quite matches the dramatic force of Monteverdi's best work, the German yields nothing to the Italian in his settings of the Song of Songs. King and Grant drew out the erotic qualities of the Saxon composer's "O quam tu pulchra es" and "Veni di Libano", with the effortless messa di voce phrasing of both men making clear sense of the close contrapuntal imitation and highlighting the text's impassioned urgency. Cornwell's vivacious account of Schutz's "Paratum cor meum" and profoundly expressive contributions to Monteverdi's "Salve regina", delivered with improvisatory freshness, reinforced the memorable coincidences and differences in the work of two undeniably great composers.