iuchair Ensemble

Govan Old Parish Church

Govan, all too often, gets a bad press. Yet in recent years, thanks to the lively initiatives of socially-minded conductor Paul MacAlindin and his Glasgow Barons organisation, this rough-by-reputation satellite Glasgow community’s historic Old Parish Church has been a centre of regular classical music activity. If it’s not the Glasgow Barons themselves – a proficient and enterprising freelance orchestra – MacAlindin programmes interesting guests with intriguing music. 

On Thursday it was an emerging Glasgow-based vocal ensemble, something akin to a rarefied boy band specialising in hits from the Medieval and Renaissance canon. For their hour-long programme, the iuchair Ensemble focused on one of two key masses by the 15th century Franco-Flemish composer Petrus de Domarto. 

At its time – probably the 1450s – the Missa Spiritus almus was deemed a challenging venture into the world of 4-part mass writing, its unapologetic dissonances and rhythmic freedom edgy and daring, if counter to the tastes of some, including 15th century theorist Johannes Tinctoris, whose adverse critique of the time apparently damned the music to reasonable success by notoriety.

In the vast, shadowy jadedness of Govan Old, the pungent early evening sun picking random targets to illuminate (unfortunately not the black-clad singers visually muted in a permanently dark spot), the four male voices brought a patent enthusiasm to a carefully measured performance. It wasn’t always perfectly in tune, which rather dulled the impact of Domarto’s built-in harmonic tensions, but it did have a certain rawness of tone that gave character to this unfamiliar, explorative music.

Nor, as per its original liturgical function, was the Mass presented as a continuous entity, interjected appropriately by relevant plainsong and motets. Among them were Johannes Touront’s florid 3-part O Florens Rosa, sung distantly from the “east end”; Guillaume DuFay’s gritty Ave regina caelorum, intoned in a rugged continental style; and Leonel Power’s Ave maris stella, which seemed extraordinarily uncouth in its harmonic construction – those parallel octaves! – yet proved fascinating as an earthy reflection of its primitive origins.

In all, the iuchair Ensemble – joined in parts, with a certain funkiness, by Bodhrán player Craig Baxter – unveiled a sequence of repertoire that demands deep understanding of its fragile quirks, unrefined experimentation and historical context. There was much in their performance that proved fresh and enlightening, even where the occasional imbalance of voices – was it tiredness in the demanding top tenor line? – slightly rocked the boat. We left having learnt something new.

As an added bonus on exit, and save for the muffled mass drumming of a distant marching band in rehearsal, the quiet streets and summer evening glow gave Govan the aura of a leafy suburban sanctuary. Reputations can be misleading.

Ken Walton