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Carlo GESUALDO (1566-1635)
Tenebrae (1611)
Feria Quinta: Tenebrae responsoria for Maundy Thursday; Miserere mei [71:21]
Feria Sexta: Tenebrae responsoria for Good Friday [62:58]
Sabbato Sancto: Tenebrae responsoria for Holy Saturday; Canticum Zachariae [60:00]
Graindelavoix/Björn Schmelzer
Latin text and English translation included
rec. 2019, Église de Saint-Jean, Beaufays, Belgium
GLOSSA GCDP32116 [3 CDs: 194:19]

To appreciate this work, you need to know something of its original liturgical setting, particularly since the booklet notes say nothing about it. The texts come from the service known as Tenebrae (darkness), which is liturgically Matins and Lauds of the last three days of Holy Week sung in anticipation on the night before. In each full service there are psalms, readings from the Book of Lamentations, the New Testament and St Augustine and the responsories. Candles are progressively extinguished as the service continues until the church is left in darkness. The full services are extremely long. Some churches still celebrate this haunting and moving service, usually in a drastically abridged form, but the finest settings of the responsories and lamentations, such as those by Victoria, Tallis and this set by Gesualdo, have broken free from their original context. They are often performed in a concert setting and recorded on their own. That is more or less what we have here. We need to bear in mind that when they were originally performed, the rest of the service, that is the psalms and readings, would have been sung in plainchant or spoken. The rich musical material of the responsories was expected to be contrasted with the plainer fare of plainchant, beautiful in its own way. Hearing only the responsories, if I may risk the analogy, is like having a meal consisting entirely of rich creamy desserts without any healthy first course with plenty of dark green vegetables.

This release is not quite the responsories on their own. Each day has nine of them. For the first three of them for each day we also have the readings from the Book of Lamentations, sung in plainchant, with the responsories intervening as they should. The other readings are omitted. However, this is enough to give a flavour of the original setting. We also have, at the end of the Maundy Thursday set, the Miserere mei, a setting of Psalm 51 (this is the numbering in English Bibles; it is Psalm 50 in the Latin Vulgate numbering), and – just before the end of the Holy Saturday set – the Canticum Zacharias better known as the Benedictus Dominus, Deus Israel, which is the standard Lauds canticle throughout the year (and in Anglican morning prayer). Strictly speaking, both of these should come on all three days, but as Gesualdo only wrote one setting of each, it is sensible to perform each of them here only once.

The responsories themselves are, as I have suggested, wonderfully rich material. They are in six parts: two sopranos, alto, two tenors and bass. They are in Gesualdo’s most advanced idiom, highly chromatic and expressive, especially when the suffering of Christ is dwelt on. There are frequent sudden harmonic shifts, exposed entries on high or low notes, and switches between elaborate polyphonic writing and more homophonic passages. The pace is predominantly slow and meditative, with only occasional bursts of speed, which are never for long. Gesualdo responds closely to the words, and his melismatic writing means that the listener has to concentrate in detail on the texts to get the most out of this moving and often tormented music. It makes for very demanding listening but the work is clearly a masterpiece. It is not surprising that it has greatly influenced later composers, Stravinsky and Maxwell Davies among them.

This is very much music for an expert choir. Björn Schmelzer and his choir have been working up to this with a number of performances as well as a whole series of previous releases of other early choral works. I gather they are sometimes adventurous in their singing style, individualizing voices and adding ornamentation. However, none of that is in evidence here: they are highly disciplined and have obviously been carefully prepared. Their sound, with women on the top line, is wonderfully rich, creamy and beguiling. Intonation seems absolutely secure, and even the most complex passages come out cleanly. The plainchant settings of the Lamentations are also beautifully done, not hastily but relishing the words.

The recording, made appropriately in a church, is warm. The booklet tells us a good deal about Gesualdo’s personality but little about this work and nothing about Björn Schmelzer and his choir. It does have a number of photographs, but, more important, it has the complete texts in Latin and English, the latter sometimes taken from the King James Bible and sometimes not. An annoying feature of the set is that the three discs are almost indistinguishable from one another. They are laid out in the folder in numerical order from left to right, but I wrote the numbers on them to make sure I would take out the right one.

There are few other complete recordings of this work, although there are partial ones which are not always flagged as such. The French group A Sei Voci recorded the work in 1982, and their version is still available on Apex; it had a mixed reception. The 1990 Hilliard Ensemble version was still, in 2012, the BBC Building a Library first choice. But next year Herreweghe and his Collegium Vocale Gent recorded the work, and this has been well received (review). I have not heard Herreweghe, but I had the Hilliards for comparison, and I find Graindelavoix a good deal more attractive. If you want to hear the responsories in their original liturgical context, Andrew Parrott and his Taverner Consort have recorded just the Good Friday set with some of the appropriate psalms and all the other readings (review). But Graindelavoix have now become my go-to set for this work.

Stephen Barber

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