Dunedin Consort

Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh

This original presentation of unaccompanied Renaissance madrigals, sung with passion and precision by a quintet led and directed by tenor Nicholas Mulroy, would not have come about but for the pandemic. Available free to view via the Dunedin Consort’s website for the month of June, it exists as a film, while this concert and the one in Glasgow replace the a cappella performances onscreen with live singing, now that is permissible once again.

What it does, however, would have been just as valid an exercise without the strictures that necessitated its imagination. We hear much of the liturgical side of early vocal music in this godless age, while the lustful secular work from 16th century Italy is more rarely performed. Somewhat blasphemously co-opting the structure of Advent’s Nine Lessons and Carols, A Lover’s Discourse takes its title from the 1977 book by French post-modernist Roland Barthes, recently filmed by Claire Denis as Un beau soleil interieur with Juliette Binoche.

The texts from the book are interwoven with the madrigals by Gesualdo, Monteverdi, Luca Marenzio, and the very early Cipriano de Rore, with great skill, so that imagery hops happily across 400 years or so. At the same time, there is also a remarkable similarity of tonal expression in both, the philosophical rigour of Barthes – for whom being in love seems a fairly joyless business – remarkably akin to the mannered style of the songs, for all their saucy metaphors.

Mulroy’s emphasis is on the ensemble sound, although he himself and bass Ben McKee are both on especially fine form. They are joined by Dunedin regulars soprano Rachel Ambrose Evans and alto Jessica Gillingwater, with the Consort’s former Head of Artistic Planning, tenor David Lee, completing the group – and it is Lee who is the true Renaissance man onstage.

He is now a partner in the Leith-based company Arms & Legs, whose film work for artists during lockdown has been much admired, and not only was the concept of A Lover’s Discourse his own, but his professional career straddles all its elements.

Eight actors are seen delivering the Barthes text, stylishly filmed at locations in Edinburgh – a few not far at all from the company’s premises. Martin Quinn, Matthew Zajac and Kim Allan have the most effective contributions, in a café, a kirkyard and by the River Almond in Cramond, but all make remarkably light work of Barthes’ weighty words, just as the singers do with the music. Completing the picture are snippets of electronic underscore, by composer Pippa Murphy, that dovetail the translated French fragments with the older music.

For fans of the Dunedin’s usual fare, there is no compromise here at all – in fact the (post-) modern text is often harder to grasp than the early music, for all that it is in English. Instead, necessity has proved the mother of invention of a clever cross-genre creation.

While the singers were filmed in Glasgow’s Engine Works for the online version, in this Edinburgh Fringe venue the Dunedin Consort found a perfect venue for the project, with excellent acoustics. It is repeated in Glasgow this evening, at what is now confusingly called Platform in Midland Street, which has nothing to do with the longer-established Platform in Easterhouse, but which most folk will remember as The Arches.

Keith Bruce

Picture: Nicholas Mulroy