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Carlo GESUALDO (1566-1613)
Responsories of the Office of Tenebrae for Holy Saturday
from Responsoria et Alia ad Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae spectantia (1611)
Tomás Luis DE VICTORIA (1548-1611)
Lamentations for Holy Saturday
from Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae (1585)
Tenebrae/Nigel Short
rec. September 2012; Parish Church of St Alban the Martyr, Holborn, London
ARCHIV 479 0841 [67:33]

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. It pairs his music with that of Tomás Luis De Victoria, whose same anniversary fell 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. 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. 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 evinces 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.

Ralph Moore