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Carlo GESUALDO da Venosa (1566 - 1613): Tenebrae Responsoria Feria Quinta

Les Arts Florissants
Dir: Paul Agnew

rec: Sept 2018, Ambronay, Abbatiale
Harmonia mundi - HAF 8905363 (© 2023) (76'13")
Liner-notes: E/DF; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Responsoria et alia ad Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae spectantia (Feria Quinta)

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

Miriam Allan, Maud Gnidzaz, soprano; Mélodie Ruvio, contralto; Paul Agnew, Sean Clayton, tenor; Edward Grint, 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 with 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 the recording under review here, 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 when the Responsoria were written. The year of publication does not tell us much. Paul Agnew, in his liner-notes, suggests that they may have been written during Gesualdo's time in Ferrara. "[The] compositional style of the madrigals seems to me an extension of his work in Ferrara, and most probably written either in Ferrara or soon afterwards. The fact that the works are published much later is of no significance, other that to speak to Gesualdo's understandable pride in his talent."

We also don't know 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 with regard to the number of singers which should or could be involved in a performance. Here we have a performance with one voice per part, which may well be in line with a performance in Gesualdo's own chapel. Agnew argues that these pieces are "remarkably expressive and extremely difficult. (...) It is very unlikely that a choral foundation existing either in Ferrara or Naples would have been of a sufficient technical standard to execute these works. I would in any case contest that they are examples of 'choral' music." Agnew calls them 'sacred madrigals' and that seems a pretty accurate description of these works.

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 the responsories 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 would advise not to listen to these responsories bit by bit. One should listen to the Responsoria of one particular day at a stretch. This way they have their maximum effect and will make a lasting impression.

This is made rather easy by Les Arts Florissants in that it confines itself to the Responsoria for the first of the three last days of Passion week, known as triduum sacrum. Each of the three days had the same structure, inspired by the Trinity. "Each of the three Matins services of the Triduum comprised three Nocturns. Each of these included three psalms, three responsories and three lessons: readings from the Lamentations of Jeremiah (for the First Nocturn), from Saint Augustine's Commentaries on the Psalms (Second Nocturn) and from the Epistles to the Corinthians and the Hebrews (Third Nocturn). Matins was followed without interruption by Lauds, also divided into tripartite sequences." Gesualdo only set the responsories, and these are usually performed without their liturgical context. What makes this recording by Les Arts Florissants unique is that here they are put into their proper context. As Agnew explains, the full service may have lasted about two hours, and "would be punctuated by silent prayer, which works particularly badly on recordings, so I have condensed the psalms to two verses and edited the readings in order at least to give a sense of the rhythm and atmosphere in which Gesualdo's works would have been heard". The psalms and the readings are sung in plainchant. In the first Nocturn the Lamentations of Jeremiah are sung alternately by the three high and the three low voices, which join in the closing formula: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return to the Lord your God". The readings from St Augustine's commentaries and the Epistles are sung by a single male voice. The programme ends with a plainchant version of the gradual from the Mass of Holy Thursday, Christus factus est, and Gesualdo's alternatim setting of the penitential psalm Miserere mei Deus. The latter is not part of Matins, but rather the opening of Lauds.

Recently Harmonia mundi released recordings of Gesualdo's madrigals by Les Arts Florissants under the direction of Paul Agnew. In a way it was to be expected that Gesualdo's Tenebrae Responsoria would also be recorded. In fact, this recording predates those of the madrigals. The first two books were recorded in 2019, the responsories in 2018. One wonders why it has taken so long before they were released. I don't know - and the booklet does not include any indication - whether the responsories of the second and third day will also be recorded. The complete set is available in two excellent recordings by the Collegium Vocale Gent under the direction of Philippe Herreweghe (PHI, 2013) and La Compagnia del Madrigale (Glossa, 2014). However, the present recording deserves its place alongside them, first because of the liturgical context, which set this recording apart from what is available on disc. The second reason is the singing of the six members of Les Arts Florissants, which is of the highest quality. Because of the excellent blending of the voices, the precise intonation, the effective application of dynamics, and the exploration of the expressive features of these pieces, this recording lands at the highest echelons of the discography of Gesualdo's responsories. Even if you have one of the above-mentioned recordings, you should investigate this one. And let's hope the remaining responsories are going to be recorded in due course.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Les Arts Florissants

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