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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Breathtaking performance of Gesualdo's masterpiece, 19 Mar 2011
This review is from: Gesualdo: Tenebrae (Audio CD)
The year 1611 saw the publication of Gesualdo's fifth and sixth Books of madrigals; the same year his last collection of sacred motets was also published. 'Responsoria et alia ad Officium Hebdonadae Sanctae spectantia' was composed for the Tenebrae service during Holy Week, when the Christian Church commemorates Christ's betrayal, death and burial on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Tenebrae means 'darkness'; the darkness of the church building as all but one of its lights are extinguished during the service, and the symbolic growing darkness of the world as 'Christ the Light of the World' is taken from us. It's an atmospheric service, a time of sorrow and solemn ritual. Gesualdo's reasons for setting these 27 responsories, plus a Benedictus and Miserere, were partly personal. Holy Week's themes of guilt, betrayal and redemption had special significance for him given his responsibility for the murder of his first wife after her infidelity, and this work provided a further opportunity to explore the trauma of his plight. It's this autobiographical undercurrent that heightens the dark atmosphere of the 'Responsoria', giving it a compelling edge as humility (his sincere desire for redemption) becomes entangled with self-pity and perhaps hubris (using Christ's suffering as a metaphor for his own private anguish). There certainly is a depth of feeling here, borne out by the emotional intensity of the music, which counteracts the argument put forward by some scholars that the tortured nature of Gesualdo's music is merely a mannerist pose.

The Hilliard Ensemble rise to the challenge of the Responsoria on 'Gesualdo: Tenebrae' demonstrating once again why they are one of the world's leading vocal ensembles. Their collective cohesion in conveying the myriad harmonic nuances, prominent and understated, of this often peculiar music, is simply breathtaking. Furthermore, they have supreme control of the fluctuating dynamics of Gesualdo's innovative and highly expressive vocabulary - from subdued introspection to distraught outcry and all points between.

Unlike the earlier sacred motet cycle, the 'Sacrae Cantiones', the 'Responsoria' shows Gesualdo incorporating his advanced madrigalian style into sacred music with greater fluency and frequency. 'Responsorium 3' from the Maundy Thursday cycle (Feria Quinta) encapsulates much that is wonderful about the work; in particular, the sublime, bittersweet melodic phrases that emerge from unusual harmonic interaction between the voices. There are many examples of Gesualdo's lively madrigalian phrasing throughout the work, including 'Responsorium 2' at the phrase "Ye shall take flight"; also, 'Responsorium 2' from the Good Friday cycle (Feria Sexta) when describing how the veil of the temple was rent and the graves opened; and in 'Responsorium 1' of the Holy Saturday cycle (Sabbato Sancto) at "That He might give life to His people." Particularly affecting is the setting of 'O vos omnes' ('Responsorium 5' from Sabbato Sancto) based on melodic material first used in the motet from the Sacrae Cantiones. It's perhaps no coincidence that Gesualdo was inspired to write possibly his most poignant melody for this text with its obvious autobiographical resonance ("O all ye that pass by attend and see: If there be any sorrow like unto My sorrow."). The Hilliard Ensemble's performance is especially captivating here, as they communicate the mysterious beauty of the chromatic writing, fading so memorably on that entrancing, sombre cadence "dolor meus".

The 'Responsoria' is commonly regarded as Gesualdo's masterpiece, and with an abundance of technical innovation, emotional intensity and subtle shades of tone colour, such as there is here, it's hard to dissent from this conclusion. And you don't need to be religious to enjoy the finer points of this music, just as you don't to enjoy the sacred music of a devout Christian like Messiaen. For sheer idiosyncratic brilliance there's nothing comparable in Renaissance music to Gesualdo's strange, tormented, yet compelling vision. It's high time his extraordinary music was appreciated by many more beyond the relatively small number of Early Music enthusiasts.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Deep Soul Music, 29 April 2012
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This review is from: Gesualdo: Tenebrae (Audio CD)
This is a superb disc, recorded in 1991 by the Hilliards at their peak - though more than ten years on, they are still one of the finest vocal ensembles around. As always with ECM and the Hilliards, both the recording quality and the vocal performance are exquisite. This music arrived in my life at a time of great personal upheaval and sadness, and it brought me consolation. It finds its way right down into your soul, reaches the pockets of stored emotion and turns them inside out. It is both heartbreaking and uplifting in equal measure. I for one would not be without it.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A new sound world of sublimity in this performance, 29 Dec 2009
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Dr. David M. Howard "App maker" (York, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Gesualdo: Tenebrae (Audio CD)
As ever fabulous sensitive singing with cutting tuning - a sonic special that give huge pleasure.
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