Gesualdo is better known for his six published books secular
madrigals than for his sacred music. Even so, it's the latter that perhaps
represents his most profound writing. Indeed, Gesualdo's sacred motets -
only one of the two books published in 1603 survives - and these sumptuous
and moving collections of over two dozen Responsories were written toward
the end of Gesualdo's life. They clearly reflect a broad range of emotions
which illuminates and penetrates the relationship between conviction and
All 27 short works - fewer than half a dozen last more than five
minutes - are splendidly presented here by Collegium Vocale Ghent under its
long time conductor Philippe Herreweghe. The Ensemble was founded on
Herreweghe's initiative in 1970 by students at that town's university to
explore what were then new and exciting Baroque vocal performance practices.
Collegium Vocale Ghent still emphasises authenticity, the primacy of
the text and an approach that contains a due measure of rhetoric. Listen to
the tempi, the pauses, the rubato almost, in the ninth Responsory from the
Feria Quinta, Seniores populi [CD.1 tr.9], for instance. It's a style of
singing that respects detail and accuracy as much as flare.
You'll be struck within the first few bars by the immediacy of
Collegium Vocale's music-making. It's as though they're extending voice and
soul to the listener by articulating every note, every phrase. At the same
time they commend what they offer from a strong understanding of the
structure of each piece as a whole and the place of each piece in the
Responsories as a unified collection.
This well thought-out amalgam makes for a very transparent and
compelling account of this music. It's also one of only two pairs of CDs to
contain this work of Gesualdo's in its entirety. That said, Herreweghe's and
the Collegium Vocale Ghent's can easily be considered the most precise,
alive and rounded view of the Responsories.
The Ensemble's approach could have elevated the personal, the
'indulgent', even, of what we suspect of Gesualdo's musical disposition; not
to mention what we have come to imagine of his personal character. Instead
the music grows in impact thanks to the clarity of their diction, to the
unostentatious thoughtfulness on the occasion (the Tenebrae service in Holy
Week), and to their inviting us to respond with temperance to such momentous
events and feelings. Not for nothing was Stravinsky an admirer of the
austerity of Gesualdo. The Collegium's achievement is all the more
remarkable because of their marriage - without sentimentality - of
concision, concentration and sentiment.
Through the Collegium's detachment sounds emotion. Their emotion is
shot through with dignity and poise: listen to the sixth Responsory of the
Feria Sexta, Animam meam [CD.1 tr.15], for example. There we hear urgency
and purpose and these are conveyed through variety of pace as much as
elocution. The urgency comes through because that very elocution obliges us
to understand and digest the import of the text: "I delivered the soul I
loved into the hands of the wicked …"
Collegium Vocale Ghent's isn't the drama of the whispered threat or
mawkishly withheld declaration of faith or love. It's delivered as if from
'behind' the passion and passionate imagery which ought to follow from
contemplation of the slow but inevitable dimming of light during the
Tenebrae service. Add to this a tone of penitence in Gesualdo's writing and
you need singing of the greatest sensitivity and restraint.
That's just what the Collegium attains.
The two locations used on these recordings - it's unclear which was
for which - are resonant. Each nevertheless concentrates our appreciation of
the singing admirably. The Collegium Vocale Ghent consists of nineteen
singers though not all sing in every piece here. The two acoustics enhance
the desired unity of vocal projection which makes these performances so
compelling. It reinforces the aforementioned blend of rhetoric, emotion and
The booklet contains a short essay contextualising the Responsories
and giving insight into their printing by a Gesualdo keen to ensure his
legacy; he insisted that the press be moved to his castle. It also has a
brief sketch of the Collegium. The full texts are set out language by
language, rather than side by side and referencing the Latin.
If you have any interest in Renaissance choral music, but don't know
this glorious music by one of its least well understood, yet indubitably
greatest exponents, this set is a to be considered very seriously. Lovers of
Gesualdo's music who may already have, for instance, the other set by a Sei
Voci on Warner Apex (62782) should still look at Herreweghe's very different
conception … and marvel.