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.