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Carlo GESUALDO (1566-1613)
Tenebrae Responsories (1611)
Feria Quinta [41:01]
Feria Sexta [38:25]
Sabato Sancto [33:49]
Benedictus [4:50]
Miserere [8:29]
Collegium Vocale Ghent/Philippe Herreweghe
rec. June 2012, Notre Dame du Liban, Paris; August 2012, Chiesa di San Francesco, Asciano, Italy. DDD
PHI LPH 010 [79:26 + 47:10]

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 music.

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 'distance'.

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.

Mark Sealey