Choral composer Carlo Gesualdo (1566 -1613) has a public relations problem. On October 16, 1590, Gesualdo came upon his wife, Donna Maria, and her aristocratic lover, Fabrizio Carafa, in flagrante delicto
, brutally killing them both and dragging their mutilated bodies in front of his Palazzo Sansevero for all to see. As Gesualdo was of noble birth he was found not to have committed a crime. Trying to square this behavior with his composing the greatest collection of madrigals, second only to Monteverdi, is a chore until considering Gesualdo in the same light as English poet Ben Jonson, dramatist Christopher Marlowe, and Italian painter Caravaggio, all of who were murderers capable of the sublime.
As a composer, Gesualdo was a child of the Renaissance in name only. His compositional style was forward-thinking and among the most experimental and emotive of the period. Assertively polychromatic at a time when such was frowned upon by the Catholic Church (the Church preferring more monochromatic texts at the time) , Gesualdo's compositional choral style would not appear again until the late 19th century, and then, only in tonality. He composed five books of madrigals between 1594 and 1611.
Gesualdo's Tenebrae Responsoria
, considered here in a recording by the Belgian vocal ensemble Graindelavoix under the direction of Björn Schmelzer, was published in 1611. The Tembrae are a collection of responsories for Holy Week, rendered stylistically as madrigals (madrigali spirituali
or madrigals on sacred texts). It consists of three sets of nine short pieces, one set for each of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, and a psalm and a hymn. Gesualdo composed the works for unaccompanied voices: two soprano parts, alto, two tenor parts, and bass.
The texts for Gesualdo's Holy Week compositions reflect Jesus's Passion and are sung in between the lessons at Tenebrae. Tenebrae (darkness) is a special liturgical service, performed during the Canonical Hours of Matins and Lauds on the last three days of Holy Week, anticipating each on the night before. Each service is made up of psalms, readings from the Book of Lamentations, the New Testament, the writings of Church Father, St. Augustine and the responsories. During the service, candles are progressively extinguished until the church is left in darkness. When originally performed, the rest of the service, that is the psalms and readings outside of the responsories, were sung in plainchant or spoken. This placed the responsories in rich and stark contrast with the plainer plainchant and spoken word.
The present release is not the responsories on their own. For the first three responsories for each day there are readings from the Book of Lamentations, sung in plainchant, with the responsories intervening as they should. The other readings traditionally given are left out in the interest of time. That said, this recorded performance provides enough evidence of the original setting for appreciation. The responsories are richly expressive in the composer's most developed method, densely chromatic and polytonal. Gesualdo pushes the creative envelope, interpolating jarring harmonic shifts and alternating between elaborate polyphonic writing and more homophonic passages. The tempi are predominantly slow and thoughtful. The composer made an effort to articulate closely to the text.
The responsories are works for professionals. Director Björn Schmelzer and his ensemble Graindelavoix are equal to the task, with a discography including works by Orazio Vecchi (1550-1605); Jean Hanelle (c.1380 c.1436); and Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300-1377) preceding this one. Recorded appropriately in a church, Beaufays (Église de Saint-Jean l'Évangeliste), Belgium, dating from the 12th Century, the sonics and ambiance are warmly inviting. The voices are captured with plenty of space between them. The performance is beautifully dedicated and powerful. Maestro Schmelzer directs with a liberal hand, allowing his merry band enough leeway to give an exemplary performance. Organic and real, these performances are arresting.
The music press has not been particularly kind to Schmelzer or his ensemble. Schmelzer does have the swagger of an iconoclast, an image played up in the gatefold photographs and videos of the ensemble performing, all prepared in black and white, recalling the another pair of iconoclasts making sweaty history in the damp basement of Nellcôt during the Spring and Summer of 1971. Like Bach's Die Kunst der Fuge
is to instrumental composition, Gesualdo's Tenebrae
represents a cultural high-water mark for aspiring choruses. Björn Schmelzer and Graindelavoix set the bar high indeed. For Comparison: Tenebrae Responsories
, A Sei Voci, 2CD Erato 97411; Warner Classics 2564 62782 (1984-1986) Tenebrae
, The Hilliard Ensemble, ECM New Series 1422/23 843 867 (1991) Responsoria 1611
, Collegium Vocale Gent, direction Philippe Herreweghe, PHI LPH010 (2013) Responsoria 1611
, La Compagnia del Madrigale, Glossa GCD922803 (2014)
CD I: Feria Quinta – Tenebrae Responsoria for Maundy Thursday - Aleph.
Quomodo sedet sola civitas (Lectio I); In monte Oliveti (Responsorium I); Zain.
Recordata est Hierusalem (Lectio II); Tristis est anima mea (Responsorium II);
Lamed. O vos omnes, qui transitis per viam (Lectio III); Ecce vidimus eum
(Responsorium III); Exaudi, Deus, orationem meam (Lectio IV); Amicus meus
(Responsorium IV); Iudas mercator pessimus (Responsorium V); Unus ex
discipulis meis (Responsorium VI); Eram quasi agnus (Responsorium VII); Una
hora (Responsorium VIII); Seniores populi (Responsorium IX); Christus factus est
(Antiphona); Miserere mei Deus (Psalmus 50). CD II: Feria Sexta – Tenebrae
Responsoria for Good Friday - Heth. Cogitavit Dominus dissipare (Lectio I);
Omnes amici mei (Responsorium I); Lamed. Matribus suis dixerunt (Lectio II);
Velum templi scissum est (Responsorium II); Aleph. Ego vir videns paupertatem
(Lectio III); Vinea mea electa (Responsorium III); Tamquam ad latronem
(Responsorium IV); Tenebrae factae sunt (Responsorium V); Animam meam
dilectam tradidi (Responsorium VI);; Tradiderunt me in manus impiorum
(Responsorium VII); Iesum tradidit impius (Responsorium VIII); Caligaverunt
oculi mei (Responsorium IX); CD III: Sabbato Sancto – Tenebrae Responsoria for
Holy Saturday - Heth. Misericordiae Domini (Lectio I); Sicut ovis ad occisionem
(Responsorium I); Aleph. Quomodo obscuratum est aurum (Lectio II);
Hierusalem, luge et exue te (Responsorium II); Incipit oratio Hieremiae
Prophetae (Lectio III); Plange quasi virgo (Responsorium III); Recessit Pastor
noster (Responsorium IV); O vos omnes (Responsorium V); Ecce quomodo
moritur justus (Responsorium VI); Astiterunt reges terrae (Responsorium VII);
Aestimatus sum (Responsorium VIII); Sepulto Domino (Responsorium IX);
Mulieres sedentes (Ad benedictus antiphona); Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel
(Canticum Zachariae); Mulieres sedentes.