Gesualdo: Responsoria 1611 / Herreweghe, Collegium Vocale Gent

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The second project of Collegium Vocale Gent and Philippe Herreweghe for the Phi label to focus on Renaissance music is devoted to one of the most remarkable of all composers: Carlo Gesualdo. Both his life, characterised by extravagant and excessive behaviour, and his compositions left their mark on the history of music. Although best known for his secular music, he also wrote an almost equivalent number of sacred works that demonstrate his fervent faith. The Tenebrae Responsories comprise a set of pieces for Holy Week, in all twenty-seven motets for six voices, a psalm, and a hymn, published under his own supervision in 1611. As in his madrigals, the music is underpinned by many unexpected chromatic variations that create expressive images evoking tears, the earthquake, the despair of Christ on the cross, etc. The acoustics of the church of the village of Asciano in Tuscany, where the programme was recorded in 2011, create the perfect soundscape for this music.

R E V I E W S:

Philippe Herreweghe and his Collegium Vocale Gent are masters of Renaissance polyphony, having produced go-to titles of this repertoire in their two-decade discography for Harmonia Mundi. Now recording for their own imprint, Herreweghe and company present a double-disc set of Carlo Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responsories. Infamously, the Italian nobleman had his wife killed after catching her in flagrante delicto with another; his works thereafter have a penitential dissonance that gives the music a modernist feel. If not as chromatic as his late madrigals, Gesualdo’s works for Tenebrae are more harmonically and rhythmically daring than those of, say, Lassus or Victoria. As atmospheric as a candle-lit ceremony, Herreweghe’s account of these richly textured works is beautifully sung and perfectly recorded.

-- Bradley Bambager, Listen Magazine

Synchronicity strikes again. Here, on the heels of Marco Longhini’s beautifully boxed set of Gesualdo’s secular madrigals (see my review above), is a release of the composer’s sacred music. As annotator Glenn Watkins puts it in the booklet, Gesualdo’s sacred music fell completely into oblivion. Watkins surmises that part of this may have been due to the fact that very few copies have survived, indicating (to him) that the print run may have been very small to begin with. Yet there may also be the barrier to non-religious listeners who simply do not respond to this type of music. As always, it depends on the quality of the music and the quality of the performances.

Watkins’s liner notes do not indicate whether or not the published copies of these scores call for the number of voices used here, which range between 13 and 19. (Herreweghe’s choir includes six female singers.) Nevertheless, the group is splendid. It has that rare combination of good vocal blend, transparency of texture and excellent diction that made Longhini’s madrigal performances equally exceptional. Moreover, as Longhini’s high male voices blended perfectly with the lower ones, so do Herreweghe’s female voices blend perfectly with the male, including four countertenors (two designated as “altus” and two as “quintus”) with equally exceptional voices.

What Watkins does indicate, however, is that the religious music is not as harmonically daring as the last two books of madrigals: “the moderation of their most extreme harmonic language in the sacred works cannot fail to be noted. Yet while the insistent contrast between fast (diatonic) and slow (chromatic) music found in the madrigals is less obvious here, the sacred texts offer abundant images for an inflected musical response.” In addition, as the performances unfolded, I heard quite a bit here that was considerably more advanced than any other liturgical music of its time; and, more to the point, not only the music but its performance here was considerably more emotional and powerful than the Gregorian chant and/or Palestrina music used at that time. Again, to quote Watkins, “Gesualdo’s introduction of such a powerful musical language into the ritual of Holy Week has been debated as a potentially disturbing contravention of the rules of post-Tridentine liturgical practice….We need only consider Gesualdo’s setting of Tristis est anima mea from the Maundy Thursday cycle to note the difference….The flight at the beginning is flurried and quickly cut off by a rhythmic snap; the offering of his soul and body that follows is embraced by one of the most affective and passionately chromatic passages in the entire cycle….In the Holy Saturday cycle, Aestimatus sum … is drama of a high order and of a kind rarely attained in the world of sacred music before or after.”

Watkins’s dry but accurate description of this music says as much as I could, thus I will allow his words to stand for mine here. From whatever viewpoint you approach this remarkable set of discs, however, it is a gem to be cherished.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley

Product Description:

  • Release Date: October 29, 2013

  • Catalog Number: LPH010

  • UPC: 5400439000100

  • Label: Phi

  • Number of Discs: 2

  • Composer: Carlo Gesualdo

  • Conductor: Philippe Herreweghe

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Ghent Collegium Vocale