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Carlo GESUALDO da Venosa & Tomás Luis DE VICTORIA: Music for Passiontide

[I] Carlo GESUALDO da Venosa (1566 - 1613): "Responsoria 1611"
Collegium Vocale Gent
Dir: Philippe Herreweghe
rec: June 2012, Paris, Notre Dame du Liban; August 2012, Asciano, Chiesa di San Francesco
PHI - LPH 010 (2 CDs) (© 2013) (2.06'36")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/N; lyrics - translation: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Feria Quintaa; Feria Sextab; Sabbato Sanctoc; Benedictusd; Misereree

Source: Responsoria et alia ad Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae spectantia, 1611

Juliet Fraser, Aleksandra Lewandowska, Dominique Verkinderen, cantus; Zoe Brownade, Griet De Geyterade, Margot Oitzingerbc, Zsuzsi Tóthbc, Louise Wayman, sextus; Tobias Hunger, Alexander Schneider, altus; Stephan Gäher, David Munderloh, quintus; Thomas Hobbsade, Hermann Oswaldade, Bernd Fröhlichbc, Manuel Warwitzbc, tenor; Matthias Lutze, Stephan MacLeod, Adrian Peacock, bassus

[II] Carlo GESUALDO da Venosa, Tomás Luis DE VICTORIA: "Responsories and Lamentations for Holy Saturday"
Dir: Nigel Short
rec: Sept 2012, London, Parish Church of St Alban the Martyr, Holborn
Archiv - 479 0841 (© 2013) (67'33")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Carlo GESUALDO da Venosa (1566-1613): Responsoria, 1611 (Sabbato Sancto); Tomás Luis DE VICTORIA (1548-1611): Lamentationes (Sabbato Sancto)

Sources: Tomás Luis de Victoria, Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae, 1585; Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa, Responsoria et alia ad Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae spectantia, 1611

Zoë Brown, Grace Davidson, Susanna Fairbairn, Emilia Hughes, Katie Trethewey, Amy Wood, soprano; Martha McLorinan, contralto; David Allsopp, Daniel Collins, alto; Benjamin Alden, Jeremy Budd, Guy Cutting, David de Winter, tenor; Gabriel Crouch, William Gaunt, Giles Underwood, bass

Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa is one of the most intriguing characters in music history. His biography stirs the imagination, and so does his music. It is not easy to get a grip on his madrigals, especially those of the last two books. It was for his contributions to this genre that he has become especially famous. For a long time he was considered a loner, whose musical language was unique. Recent studies of his historical context have shown that he was rooted in a tradition which had developed in the second half of the 16th century - in particular Luzzasco Luzzaschi was his model - and that there were also composers of the next generation who followed in his footsteps. Even so, his music has lost nothing of its fascination as he often went into extremes in regard to text expression. In this department one can hardly find his match in his time or afterwards.

In comparison to his madrigals his sacred output has not received the same amount of attention. Today his Cantiones Sacrae of 1603 and his Responsoria are regularly performed and are available in more than one recording. Even so, the attention for this part of his oeuvre is in no way comparable to that for his madrigals. That is rather odd as in harmonic language and text expression they are hardly less remarkable. The Responsoria which are the subject of these two recordings, were printed in the same year as the fifth and sixth book of madrigals. The fact that Gesualdo had his printer move his printing press to the composer's house bears witness to the great care with which he treated these publications, probably intended as his legacy to the world. All three of them demonstrate the specific features of his compositional style.

It is impossible to say with any amount of certainty for which occasion Gesualdo may have written the Responsoria and where they may have been performed. It is quite possible that he wrote them as an expression of his personal faith and that they were performed in his own chapel. This has some relevance in regard to the number of singers which should or could be involved in a performance. Both Philippe Herreweghe and Nigel Short have opted for a performance with a small vocal ensemble of 15 or 16 singers respectively. To that has to be added that Short differs in the number of singers participating in the performances. Some of the singers are indicated as building a semi-chorus. It is regrettable that neither director felt the need to inform us about their considerations in regard to performance practice. Only a short while ago the Italian ensemble La Compagnia del Madrigale released a recording of the same Responsoria in a one-to-a-part performance (Glossa, 2014). I didn't have the possibility to compare that recording with these two, but it will certainly be interesting to see how the size of the vocal ensemble influences expression and the overall impact of these pieces.

If one listens to these Responsoria one is struck by the graphic depiction of elements in the text. It can hardly surprise that in this respect they are not that different from the madrigals. After all, the texts of these Responsoria are mostly just as gloomy as those Gesualdo used for his madrigals. To a certain extent the expression here is even stronger as the Responsoria are clearly connected by their subject, whereas the madrigals are mostly individual pieces. Moreover, the comparison with settings of these texts by other composers only underlines the singularity of the way Gesualdo treated them. In particular if they are performed during Passiontide they can hardly fail to make impact. I listened to Herreweghe's recording virtually at a stretch, and I would advise not to listen to these responsories bit by bit. One should at least listen to the Responsoria of one particular day. This way they have their maximum effect and will make a lasting impression.

Obviously that also tells much about the standard of singing and the character of the interpretation. I have heard these Responsoria before but they have never impressed me as strongly as while listening to Herreweghe's performance. Every detail of the text, every emotion is exposed thanks to a very differentiated approach, based on a thorough understanding of the text and its content. Two features are essential: the excellent delivery and a perfect intonation. It is tempting to exaggerate the dissonances and other features of Gesualdo's compositional style. That is not the case here: these interpretations have a great amount of naturalness and logic. One feels that this is the way they have to be sung. I shall return to this set for sure, and although I haven't heard La Compagnia del Madrigale's recording yet, it seems hard to surpass the Collegium Vocale Gent which has produced one of his best recordings in recent years.

Tenebrae only performs the for Holy Saturday and the Miserere which is set in falsobordone style. I don't quite understand why the Benedictus wasn't included as well: there was enough space left. There is no lack of expression in their performances, but they don't manage to achieve the amount of penetration of Herreweghe's interpretation. The singing is more straightforward, which goes at the cost of text expression. The performances of Aestimatus sum - which is especially mentioned in both booklets - are telling. "'Inter mortuos liber' (Free among the dead) separates the haunting, low-lying tessitura of 'inter mortuos' from the single word 'liber', which receives its own phrase with a release into the higher registers and a quickening of the pace", Glenn Watkins states in the liner-notes to Herreweghe's recording. This is marked much stronger in the performance of the Collegium Vocale than Tenebrae's.

Their style of singing is more appropriate for the Lamentations of Jeremiah for Holy Saturday by Victoria. In the liner-notes Gabriel Crouch observes: "As a listener, fulfillment comes from the symmetry of his architecture, whether consciously perceived or not. As a singer, it comes from the sense that everything is 'where is should be' without being predictable, that we are in the safe hands of a composer who will look after our voices, our need for breath, and our desire to sing beautiful lines". I share those thoughts. However, Victoria's music can be no less compelling than Gesualdo's, albeit in a different way, and that goes certainly for his music for Holy Week. His music has a particular kind of expression which sets him apart.

Aside from the performance it is a bit of a problem that Tenebrae doesn't offer any of the collections of Holy Week by either composer complete. In the case of Gesualdo that is another argument in favour of Herreweghe. The Lamentations by Victoria are available in various recordings, and I would especially recommend the recording of the almost complete Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae by La Colombina (Glossa, 2005).

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Collegium Vocale Gent

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