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Gesualdo - Tenebrae Responsories for Holy Saturday

"Is this great music or merely weird?" wrote John Milsom in his review of this album in Gramophone magazine. Gesualdo's sacred music, like his secular madrigals, is both eccentric and passionate.


“Chalk and cheese” is how Peter Phillips described the programme he and his choir the Tallis Scholars presented in Wednesday’s late Prom. But was this apt? We know what a real chalk-and-cheese Prom is like. We had one just the other day, when Vaughan Williams and Nishat Khan appeared side-by-side, to their mutual discomfort. Compared with that, this was more like slices of Roquefort interspersed with Cheshire. What we heard were the four movements of the Gloria Tibi Trinitas Mass by the early 16th century English composer John Taverner, alongside three motets in praise of the Virgin by the somewhat later Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo.

The Gesualdo pieces, with their aromatic harmonies and overtly expressive ambience, were the Roquefort. Taverner, with his aloof, white purity of sound, was the Cheshire. But the metaphor won’t quite do. In his own way Taverner is every bit as highly flavoured as Gesualdo, but his exoticism is achieved via the different route of an ever-changing weave of voices. The vocal lines burgeon outwards in such long arches you wonder whether they’ll ever come to rest (“like a Gothic arch” said Phillips during his chat with presenter Catherine Bott).

As for Gesualdo, there’s a rapt intensity which comes from restraint. The unexpected leaps of mode throw open a door onto new expressive territory, but Gesualdo draws back from it.

Conveying intensity through restraint is what the Tallis Scholars have been doing so wonderfully these past 40 years. At this concert, which marked both the 40th anniversary of the choir and the 400th anniversary of Gesualdo’s death, they absolutely excelled themselves. The rapt, unbelievably high soaring of the sopranos in Taverner’s Mass was uncanny. You could hardly believe it emanated from mortal throats.

But everyone shared the honours. The tiny pauses between the repeated “Oh Maria” in Gesualdo’s Ave, dulcissima Maria were filled with electricity, the overlapping scale patterns in Taverner’s Gloria were both luminously clear, like the outline of a saint in a fresco, and wrapped up in the body of sound.

As Phillips would be the first to admit, the focus on these two extremes of Renaissance music left a vast area untouched. In the encore, a beautiful performance of John Sheppard’s Libera nos, salva nos, he and the Tallis Scholars gave a glimpse of what treasures lie there. It was the final wonder in a Prom that was full of them. 

Ivan Hewett

Is this great music, or is it merely weird? Certainly there are times when Gesualdo, beating his breast and winding himself up in perverse harmonic knots, leaves the listener asking whether so much awkwardness can really tastefully serve what are, after all, the most solemn liturgical texts of the Roman rite. But then, one wonders whether many (if any) church choirs outside Gesualdo's immediate circle used them in their Holy Week services. In reality these are really sacred madrigals, belonging no less to the chamber consorts that sang - and still sing - Gesualdo's equally tormented love/death poetry. Formally they are indeed responsories; but Gesualdo, proceeding as he does by idea, shifting constantly in the local service of the words, and laying particular emphasis on the pathetic and the harrowing elements in his texts, is not really interested in continuity, and it is because of this that his settings are, in the final analysis, so inherently unmusical. Set beside this composer's outpourings of passion, contemparary settings of these same texts by Palestrina, Lassus and especially Victoria appears all the more dignified and enduring.

Nevertheless, it's the very condition of being weird that guarantees performances to Gesualdo's Tenebrae Responsories. They have been recorded twice before, once by a full choir, once by solo voices. Of the three versions I should not hesitate to choose this new one by The Tallis Scholars, since they alone cope adequately with the chromatic shifts, the awkward tunings and the virtuosic leaps and runs. Admittedly the size of this group for once has a feel of compromise about it: too few singers to achieve a genuinely choral bulk of sound, too many to personalize the expressiveness. In its controlled fashion, however, the choir give a refreshingly lucid account of the notes, distinguishing the sub-sections from one another with plenty of variety. Better than the Responsories to my mind are the four more sober Marian Motets at the end of the record, which suit The Tallis Scholars rather better. Even here, though, Gesualdo declares himself to be no slave to modesty or economy. These pieces too are heavily over-written.

John Milsom

Gramophone, 1 December 1988

 Gesualdo (c1561-1613), Prince of Venosa, is well known as the arch-chromaticist (not to mention wife-murderer) of the late Renaissance. Depending on one's point of view, his tortured musical language either reflects tediously Mannerist fin de siècle tendencies or is remarkably prophetic of forthcoming tonal, if not atonal, structures. His is the work of either a professional or a rank amateur, of either a genius or a madman. The debate began even during his lifetime, and it continues today.

His six-voice Responsoria ... ad officium Hebdomadae Sanctae was published (privately, it seems) in 1611, by which time the now psychopathically deranged prince lived in seclusion in his castle at Gesualdo (some 70km east of Naples). He takes the dense, chromatic language of his madrigals and applies it here to sacred texts with only slight modification, producing a heady, spiritual effect not entirely untypical of the Counter Reformation (there are obvious, if too simple, parallels with El Grego). Gesualdo concentrates on the expression of individual words, which are isolated and subjected to an astonishing repertoire of aurally stunning musical effects (chromatic verses diatonic, imitative verses homophonic), with violent contrasts in scoring and speed, and all seemingly regardless of large-scale structure. The overall effect is, frankly, weird, although not without a peculiar logic that can be placed in the historical context of chromatic experiments throughout the 16th century.

Peter Phillips chooses to perform the nine responsories for the three nocturns of Matins on Holy Saturday paraliturgically, with alternations of tutti and solo voices and appropriate repetitions (in which case it might have been tempting to provide in chant the lessons which the responsories accompany so as to space out Gesualdo's chromatic wanderings). The repetitions make sense, but the use of the full choir (12 voices) is perhaps a little misguided: true, this music was printed in a liturgically appropriate format, but it is doubtful whether it was intended for anything more than private, even 'chamber', consumption, and one assumes that no self-respecting post-Tridentine church is likely to have admitted Gesualdo's strange sounds into its midst in Holy Week. Solo voices throughout are perhaps more appropriate, as indeed one would expect given the intense, difficult lines.

The same is not necessarily true of the four splendid motets that act as 'fillers'. They are taken from Gesualdo's five voice Sacrarum cantionum ... liber primus (Naples, 1603). This collection seems to have been designed more for public consumption, and it was produced at a much more settled time for the composer: he had returned from Ferrara with a new bride, Leonorad'Este (his stay there was crucial in forming his style under the influence of Luzzasco Luzzaschi and others of the Ferrarese circle), and he was becoming acclaimed as a leading light of the new generation of seconda prattica composers. The different circumstances, and the perhaps 'easier' five-part scoring, find their reflection in the music. To be sure, these motets are chromatic, but less wilfully so, and Gesualdo displays a richness of contrapuntal technique coupled with a sensuous expression of Marian fervour that clearly puts him well beyond any amateur.

It is difficult to divorce any assessment of the performance here from that of the music. The Tallis Scholars cope well with the difficulties of the responsories, not least the tuning, even if coordination in attack occasionally suffers and the tone is sometimes a little bland. The clarity and reasonable tempi (contrast the wobbles and adagio espressivissimo of many recordings of the madrigals) are effective. Thus the singers probably do about as much justice to the music as possible. However, they seem happier with the motets, which I enjoyed more: indeed, these performances eloquently argue the case for treating Gesualdo as a serious composer. Anyone seeking a taste of Gesualdo in his various guises, plus an insight into late Renaissance chromaticism, could do much worse than start here.

Tim Carter

Early Music (OUP), 1 August 1988

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