Gesualdo, as every cliché about the chap goes, was a proper nut-job. I mean, really, really bonkers. Killed people and stuff. Listening to his music, you'd know it, too. Lots of shifting harmonies, pushing the language of the Renaissance to the point that Pound pushed the the English language, and he's the very devil to sing well. Which is partly why this recording is so impressive: it's absolutely immaculate, beautifully polished singing from start to finish. The thing is, I can't help but think it's just a touch too polished.
Gesualdo's tenebrae responsories were written for Holy Saturday, that dark day between the abjection of Good Friday and the utter joy of Easter Sunday, and they evoke the anguished mood in dark, richly sonorous music. Along with these is Gesualdo's setting of Psalm 51 ('Miserere'), which, although it resembles the more famous setting by Allegri in its use of antiphonal plainchant and polyphonic sections, is worlds away in terms of mood and texture, eschewing the high treble for a low, sombre texture. The disc is made up with some of Victoria's settings of the Lamentations and his wonderful 'Jesu dulcis memoria.' All of this music is very fine indeed, and deserves a place in any collection.
However, I'm not sure I can give my wholehearted approval to this performance. Whereas I am normally a huge fan of Tenebrae's work, admiring their full-throated, forthright delivery, this all seems a bit too restrained and polished for me. The dissonances are too perfectly tuned, and the vocal blend comes at the expense of feeling like every syllable is deeply, passionately felt. Hearing this disc made me return to an old cd by the Tallis scholars Gesualdo - Tenebrae Responsories for Holy Saturday, which presents the tenebrae responsories with one singer on each part. The quality of the sound is less rounded, nowhere near as lovely, but this new recording really brought home the merits of that much older disc to me in the directness of the singing. Gesualdo: Tenebrae is similarly intimate, although you will have to decide for yourself whether or not the distinctive sound of the Hilliard Ensemble is something you love or hate. My personal favourite performances of Gesualdo's music are those by La Venexiana (try their discs of his madrigals for size, such as Gesualdo, C.: Madrigals, Book 5 (La Venexiana).)
So, this is definitely worth your money, but not at the expense of hearing how others perform this music.
This programme juxtaposes two markedly different sound-worlds in its celebration of the 400th anniversary of the death of Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza, pairing his music with that of Tomás Luis De Victoria, whose same anniversary was two years ago .
The two composers' lives and musical idioms present a striking contrast: Gesualdo was an austere Italian aristocrat whose life post-1590 was marked by depression following his perpetration of one of the most celebrated crimes passionels of his age; de Victoria was a Spanish priest who led a serene life of unruffled devotion to God and music, dying the most celebrated composer of the time, honoured by Popes, Cardinals and Emperors.
Gesualdo's music is characterised by the alternation of slow, tortured or reflective, wildly chromatic passages with faster, diatonic sections. Any text making reference to words connected with suffering, grief, remorse and repentance is given special prominence, reflecting his inner torment. While Gesualdo exploits chromatic slides and disturbing semitone side-steps, De Victoria's style is comparatively simple, avoiding counterpoint and a relying upon solid octave and fifth interval cadences of a serene and consolatory nature, whereas the prevailing interval in Gesualdo is the "disturbing" second. Obviously this is a generalisation, as Gesualdo, too, just occasionally suggests something closer to faith or consolation, as in the great lament "Jerusalem" in his Second Responsory; correspondingly, de Victoria was not above employing "forbidden" intervals or putting dramatic emphasis upon specific words. Even when setting words such as "we are orphans and fatherless", de Victoria finds a cathartic comfort in the articulation of grief, whereas Gesualdo lays bare his personal desolation in "O all ye who pass by in the road, stay and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow." De Victoria walks in sunny uplands while Gesualdo stumbles along shadowy paths.
Gesualdo - so often irritatingly pronounced on Radio 3 as "Ges-u-aldo" instead of the correct, Italianate "Geswaldo", just as "Don Giovanni" is so often pronounced "Don Gi-o-vanni" rather than "Don Jo-vanni" - is clearly in one sense the greater original; one has only to listen to the marvellous, lunatic semi-yodelling shake on the word "inania" (inanities, empty or "vain things") in Responsory VII to hear it, yet de Victoria's sublime assurance is equally redolent of profound genius; it was an excellent idea to pair the two contemporaries for our listening pleasure.
The performances and recording ambience here are irreproachable: Tenebrae produce a sound not dissimilar to that of The Sixteen and employ much the same forces of usually three voices per part. The sopranos of the Sixteen produce a hootier, more boyish, resinous timbre and are therefore more prominent - some would say overpowering - in ensemble; Tenebrae have a more mellow sound and thus achieve a better internal balance amongst the four lines, enabling us to hear the basses more clearly. I cannot legislate for others' taste in these matters; some will approve of their exquisite restraint, others might require more overt interpretation of the kind Jeremy Summerly's Oxford Camerata evince when they tear into the most surprising intervals in "O vos omnes".
A superb disc, marrying two of the greatest Renaissance polyphonists in some of the most sublime and ethereal Easter liturgical music ever composed.
Responsories and Lamentations for Holy Saturday. A great darkness obscuring the light, but not the light of faith it seems; not for Gesualdo. I must have heard the famous ECM Tenebrae album, or some of it, but until I listened to this CD I never heard the music. I suppose some might know of Gesualdo's notoriety but this will awaken your conscientiousness to the beauty and intensity of his unique musical imagination, for Tenebrae's singing is powerful and exquisite, the direction delving into the darkest shadows (and they are very dark indeed). One thing is for sure: Gesualdo will hold your attention.
And when the constant stream of surprises is exhausted, there are Lamentations composed by Victoria, for my money the author of the most beautiful music of the 16th century.
Notes, texts and translations, photos. A CD worthy of heavy rotation.