Gesualdo Tenebrae

Author: 
Iain Fenlon

Gesualdo Tenebrae

  • Responsoria et alia ad Officum Hebdonadae Sanctae
  • Responsoria et alia ad Officum Hebdonadae Sanctae

Historically there have been two quite different views about Gesualdo and his music. The first, now of such standing to be almost traditional, is that he was a tortured genius whose personal unhappiness is directly reflected in a musical language whose intensity of expression, largely achieved through unusual choral juxtapositions and bold chromatic detailing, is truly prophetic. Leaving aside the clearly ahistorical aspects of this account (Gesualdo foreshadowing Wagner), it sees the Prince of Venosa as a great composer, a musician of such power as to attract the attention of Stravinsky among others. The contrary, revisionist view stands in complete antithesis; here Gesualdo's strange harmonies are seen as limiting and exaggerated, the products of a modest ability that would have attracted little attention were it not for the notoriety of his private life and his privileged position in Italian society.
If any of Gesualdo's music can persuade the sceptics then it is surely this cycle of 27 Holy Week responsories, a coherent and stylistically convincing sequence of sustained beauty and vehemence. And although these works have been recorded a number of times previously, nothing can match the Hilliard's beautifully-structured and persuasive account. The overall sound is eloquently rich, with clear bright and seductively contoured upper voices underpinned by a firm, resonant bass line. It is the strength and careful articulation of the bass that is the key to the success of the Hilliard's deliberate and marked approach to the music; it functions as the motor of the style and permits the thoughtful presentation of the inner part-writing that is one of the many fine points of the interpretation. Allied to this attention to the complex gestural quality of the music is a rare grasp of the overall architecture of individual responsories. There is undoubtedly some truth in the criticism that some of the late madrigals fail to satisfy because of the heightened sense of disequilibrium, but the Tenebrae are controlled by contrast, and achieve this effect by careful alternations and repetitions of material. It is precisely through the rhetorical manipulation of repetition in, for example, the second responsory of the Feria quinta, that the music builds its emotional force, and the Hilliard's keen appreciation of this cumulative element of the piece pays handsome dividends. In short, these performances reveal a rare understanding of the inherent tensions of the music, both in terms of local detail and overall shape, and explicate them with great technical and musical artistry. I doubt that they could be bettered.'

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