Wednesday 5 February 2014

Extremely fine performances of Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responses for Good Friday from the Taverner Consort and Choir on Avie Records

Carlo Gesualdo (Gesualdo da Venosa) (c.1561-1613) was Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza, and also an accomplished lutenist and composer. Gesualdo was well connected as his father, Fabrizio, had married the niece of Pope Pius IV and sister of Cardinal Carlo Borromeo.

Sadly Gesualdo is often better known for the fact that he murdered his wife and her lover. It was in 1586 that Gesualdo married his cousin, Maria d’Avalos, daughter of the Marquis of Pescara. On 16th October 1590, Maria was discovered ‘in flagrante delicto di fragrante peccato’ with Fabrizio Carafa, Duke of Andria, by her husband. The notoriety caused by the murder compelled him to retire to his estate at Gesualdo. It was only his marriage to Leonora d’Este, the niece of Duke Alfonso II, in 1593, that rehabilitated Gesualdo, enabling him, in 1594, to travel to Ferrara, at the time a brilliant musical centre. Apart from occasional visits to his estate in Gesualdo, he stayed in Ferrara until 1596, mainly occupied with music making.

There is no doubt that Gesualdo’s music can be highly individual, with unusual part writing and odd chromatic shifts. Nevertheless, his music produces some fine effects in uplifting settings that can match any music from the period.

Gesualdo’s surviving compositions include six books of Madrigals, Sacrae Cantiones I, for five voices (1603) and Tenebrae Responses for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, each for six voices (1611).

It is the Tenebrae Responses for Good Friday (1611) that are featured on a new release from Avie Records issued just at the end of the quatercentenary year of Gesualdo’s death. The responses are performed by the Taverner Consort and Choir directed by Andrew Parrott


Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responses for Good Friday (Responsoria, 1611) are in three sections, In I. Nocturno, In II. Nocturno and In III. Nocturno. This is symbolic, representing the Trinity and the three days of Christ’s entombment. Each service is divided into three Nocturnos or segments, each beginning with three psalms (though on this recording there is one psalm per nocturno) followed by three readings or lessons alternating with three sung responses. The psalms and readings are in plainchant and shared between clergy, on this recording taken by the soloists, and a unison choir, the Taverner Choir taking this part. Gesualdo’s six part polyphonic responds are sung here by the Taverner Consort.

In I. Nocturno.

The plainchant brings some terrific singing from the Taverner Choir that really benefits the Antiphon – Astiterunt reges terrae. Psalm: Quare fremuerunt gentes (Psalm 2) Antiphon: Astiterunt reges terrae, adding textures and interest.

Lectio I: De Lamentatione…Heth brings soloist Jeremy White who sings the chant with beautiful nuances. What a terrific choral sound emerges in the Resp. i: Omnes amici mei with Gesualdo’s strange harmonies providing a unique and stunning contrast. This really should be heard to be believed, especially as sung by the Taverner Consort who beautifully blend Gesualdo’s odd textures and harmonies and bring a lovely rubato to their singing. Their voices are equally fine across the range.

Angus Smith is the soloist for the plainchant Lectio II: Lamed, a fine performance, full of character, giving a degree of feeling to the text. Gesualdo’s harmonic shifts return for the Resp. ii: Velum temple, with superb singing form the Taverner Consort, full of superb dynamics and tempi. It is surprising what a lovely full sound just this small consort of singers can make.

Lectio III: Aleph brings Ben Parry, another fine soloist with terrific diction. The gorgeous part writing in Resp. iii: Vinea mea electa is so finely handled by Parrott and his consort, a terrific piece full of changes and interest.

In II. Nocturno

The Taverner Choir provide an impressive sound in the Antiphon: Alieni insurrexerunt – Psalm: Deus in nomine tuo (Psalm 53) – Antiphon: Alieni insurrexerunt.

Lectio IV: Ex Tractatu…Protexisti me brings a rather distinctive form of chant brilliantly sung by Nicolas Robinson with the acoustic working just right for his voice.

Resp. iv: Tamquam ad latronem has some really fine textures, as Gesualdo’s harmonies are blended with just a hint of Allegri. Richard Wistreich also shows how the acoustic can work so well in Lectio V: Tanta opera bona with his fine rich bass/baritone voice.

There is a really outstanding Resp. v: Tenebrae factae sunt with the countertenors sounding out over the rest of the consort and dramatic outbursts as Christ calls ‘My God, why have you abandoned me?’ This whole response is sung with such sensitivity and power of feeling.

Lectio VI: Exacuerunt tamquam brings the fine voiced Jeremy White again before the final respond of this section, Resp. vi: Animam meam dilectam which brings some really fine writing from Gesualdo, full of gentle pathos, yet with some madrigal style interspersions.

In III. Nocturno

In the Antiphon: Captabunt in animam justi – Psalm: Deus ultionum Dominus (Psalm 93) – Antiphon: Captabunt in animam justi the choir and acoustic again work most effectively.

Richard Wistreich brings his fine, distinctive voice again in the Lectio VII: De Epistola…Festinemus and there is a soaring Resp. vii: Tradiderunt me as the Consort cry out, ‘They have passed me into the hands of the impious.’ The countertenors sound out beautifully as do the lovely rich bass.

Ben Parry returns for the Lectio VIII: Adeamus ergo before the lovely flow of woven textures in the Resp. viii: Jesum tradidit impius.

Lectio IX: Nec quisquam brings Jeremy White’s beautifully even and controlled chant before the final response, Resp. ix: Caligaverunt oculi mei (My eyes are dimmed with tears) to bring the Tenebrae Responses to an end with pathos and no immediate consolation. There is extremely fine singing from the Taverner Consort, controlled and sensitive and beautifully blended.

These are extremely fine performances of music that is not only endlessly fascinating but often extremely beautiful.

The recording, made in 1996 for Sony Classical in St Bartholomew’s Church, Orford, Suffolk, England, is excellent. There are excellent booklet notes, full texts and English translations.

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