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Carlo GESUALDO (1566-1613)
Sacrae Cantiones for five voices, Book One (1603)
The Marian Consort, Rory McCleery (countertenor/director)
rec. Chapel of Merton College, Oxford, 6-8 January 2016
DELPHIAN DCD34176 [60:55]

It’s difficult to talk about the music of Carlo Gesualdo without reference to his oversized life story. A prince of the late Italian Renaissance, he is most famous for having murdered his wife and her lover when he caught them in flagrante in his palace in 1590. He then spent his final years in seclusion and religious self-mortification, writing motets of profoundly personal spirituality: These often broke the musical rules of the time in their strange chromaticism, which now appears to be centuries ahead of its time.

The Marian Consort have already established a reputation for singing of the highest quality and precision, and this release only does more to confirm that. The music of Gesualdo is close to their heart at the moment: they’ve recently taken part in a “concert drama” about Gesualdo called, appropriately, Breaking the Rules; appropriate because you could apply that to both his life and to his music. They present here all nineteen motets from his five-voice collection, and they do so in singing of impeccable blend and deep musical sensitivity. The first thing that strikes you is the crystalline clarity of their sound, and that’s a tribute both to the musicians and to the beautifully resonant recording, captured expertly in the perfect acoustic of Merton College Chapel.

If this collection might not promise much variety on paper, then in practice it turns into something of a journey through the art of the possible in the polyphony of the time. Ave dulcissima Maria, for example, is full of the most exquisite yearning, and it’s difficult to avoid the temptation to see in this the broken elderly composer looking back on his dissolute life and longing for the release of salvation. The chromatic, downward shifting harmonies evoke an eerie, dark sense of beauty. That longing, in fact, is one of the recurring themes of the collection. Domine, ne despicias deprecationem meam, for example, has as its text “Lord, do not spurn my prayer”, and Gesualdo uses his trademark chromaticism to depict the tribulations of the title in Tribulationem et dolorem.

You could hear all sorts of things in the composer’s choices of text, if you wanted to. Reminiscere miserationum tuarum, for example, begs God not to remember the sins of his youth, and O vos omnes rings with stunning chromaticism, evocative of searing grief and sung here with plaintive beauty and fearless commitment. Likewise, there is a gorgeous ring to the top of Hei mihi, Domine, and intimately beautiful grief in Illumina faciem tuam. Precibus et meritis and Illumina faciem tuam are rare examples of his use of a major key, but they sound almost uncomfortable in doing so, and their positivity, if you want to call it that, is strangely ambivalent.

It’s perhaps a little amateur to hear in this the old fashioned music-as-autobiography approach, however, and you also run a more serious risk of demeaning or diminishing the quality of the performances. This would do the Marian Consort a deep disservice, so perfect is their approach and so impeccable their musicality. The first time I listened to this disc I took in the whole thing in one sitting, but it’s better by far to dip in and out of it, and to savour each track as a bejewelled miniature masterpiece. This disc is a box of treasures to dip into whenever the time is right.

Simon Thompson

Ave Regina caelorum [3:27]
Venit lumen tuum [2:46]
Ave dulcissima Maria [4:17]
Reminiscere miserationum tuarum [3:36]
Dignare me laudare te [2:19]
Sancti Spiritus, Domine [2:03]
Domine, ne despicias deprecationem meam [2:42]
Hei mihi, Domine [3:12]
Laboravi in gemitu meo [3:36]
Peccantem me quotidie [4:26]
O vos omnes [2:57]
Exaudi, Deus, deprecationem meam [3:01]
Precibus et meritis [2:36]
O Crux benedicta [3:10]
Tribularer si nescirem [3:18]
Deus, refugium et virtus [3:07]
Tribulationem et dolorem [3:40]
Illumina faciem tuam [3:10]
Maria mater gratiae [3:22]



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