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Tenebrae responsories CDA68348
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Tenebrae Responsories: Feria Quinta
Thomas TALLIS (c. 1505-1585)
Lamentations of Jeremiah I [7:50] & II [12:11]
Judith BINGHAM (b. 1952)
Watch with me [5:37]
Carlo GESUALDO (c. 1561-1613)
Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday [40:18]
Joanna WARD (b. 1998)
Christus factus est [4:33]
The Gesualdo Six/Owain Park
rec. 11-13 August 2020, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London
HYPERION CDA68348 [70:30]

I began seriously listening to and collecting classical music fifty years ago when the “period awareness” or “historical authenticity” movement was still in its infancy. Thus, on receiving a new recording for review I sometimes find it enlightening to compare it with its counterparts from that era. Hence, I recently compared a new recording of Purcell’s music for viols (review) with one made by Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus Wien way back in 1962; here, I returned to a recording of Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responsories made by the French - pretentiously lower case - “harmonia mundi” label in 1970. It would seem that the differences between the old and the new are much more marked in the case of liturgical choral singing than in instrumental consort playing, as stylistically, in terms of vibrato, tempi, phrasing and expression, there is something of a gulf between the Deller Consort and The Gesualdo Six. That is hardly surprising, of course, and it does not necessarily mean that one is incontrovertibly superior to the other – but I suspect that few listeners today would prefer the old manner over the new, for all that we must both acknowledge our debt of gratitude to those pioneers for their rehabilitation of largely neglected music and appreciate their skill in performing it. With regard to Tallis’ Lamentations, for historical perspective I also relistened to recordings by the Winchester Cathedral Choir (1989) and Magnificat (made in the same location as this new recording, in 1997).

I am afraid that the inclusion of two modern works in the programming of this Hyperion issue reminds me of concerts which sneak in a new commission, sandwiched between two warhorses, on the grounds that having come for the favourites the audience will endure the novelty and stick around for the second piece. I must confess that I have no great desire to re-listen to either of them; for me, their reliance upon “spooky” chromaticism, humming, whispering and persistent dissonance has little to do with the genre of devotional music and to my ears now seems increasingly hackneyed and self-regarding. They are beautifully and expertly performed here and if you have more experimental, less conservative tastes than I you might think differently from me – but I came for the Tallis and the Gesualdo and the daring harmonic innovations of the latter are already quite adventurous enough for me, regardless of the fact that he was composing over four hundred years ago.

Otherwise, the thematic pairing of Tallis and Gesualdo is apt. The differences among the several recordings I cite above reside in more than just performance practice and style: size of ensemble, engineering, acoustic and venue – but not, in this case, pitch – also obtain. As I briefly mention above, what detractors hear as the “warbling” of the Deller Consort sits awkwardly in modern ears but they are a group of eight fine voices - rather than the consort of six in this new recording - who sing in tune as a unit, headed by distinguished soprano Honor Sheppard – who died last year - and of course Alfred Deller himself. His hooty, plaintive timbre is very distinctive but not obtrusive; nor is vibrato a constant, as one can hear from the gentle close of the first responsory “In monte Oliveti”. They sing in a more overt manner without necessarily sounding “operatic” but are careful to ensure dynamic shading. The greatest difference resides in timings; on average, the Dellers are over 30% slower than the Gesualdo Six, taking nearly 53 minutes over the Responsories as opposed to just over the 40 minutes of this new recording. Pauses are longer and phrases are lingered over more lovingly, but the flow, momentum and tonal purity of the of the Gesualdo Six certainly seem more conducive to a sustained, contemplative mood than a “performance”. Another big difference, of course, is the presence of only two countertenors - as opposed to Deller’s two sopranos and he himself and his son Mark singing countertenor - resulting in a sparer, more ethereal sound. I would, however, remark that although Deller’s two low voices are designated as baritones, they have a richer, more authentic bass quality than the two basses in the new Hyperion disc. The Gesualdo Six’s ornamentation is discreet but lends a decidedly more period feeling to their singing and the fact that they recorded “in the round”, facing each other, seems to have enhanced their homogeneity and interaction, resulting in an affect more intimate than that of the Deller group. Having said that, the Gesualdo Six are still willing to risk disrupting the prevailing smoothness of their delivery by really singing out to enhance the drama of certain aspects of the Crucifixion Story, especially in those passages narrating Judas’ betrayal.

There are far fewer differences in the timings of the three recordings of the two Tallis Lamentations I considered, but the earliest Winchester Choir recording uses larger forces as opposed to literally the “five voices” for which the works were devised and as a result their account has a grander, more anthem-like demeanour as opposed to the more personal and devotional character which Tallis surely intended. Both Magnificat and the Gesualdo Six – well, Five here, as presumably their director was only conducting as opposed to singing as well – use OVPP and create that essential sense of melancholy and loss which perhaps reflects the alienation felt by the persecuted, recusant Catholics such as Tallis was. The cry “Plorans ploravit” and “Jerusalem” (“weeping in sorrow…Jerusalem”) from the “Beth” passage in the first Lamentations is especially movingly and beautifully delivered here, both prefiguring and providing a link to Gesualdo’s own preoccupation with grief, remorse and death.

A slight peculiarity - which might perhaps be regarded as an asset or a courtesy but I am unclear – is that every letter and verse of both the Lamentations and the Responsories is given its own track, with the result that there are no fewer than 58 tracks on the disc. The notes by Owain Park provide thoughtful, helpful guidance and context. The balance and acoustic here are ideal – none of the traffic noise or birdsong – although I don’t mind the latter! – which is often audible in recordings made in this Hampstead church location.

Ralph Moore

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