Goody, I thought. A feast of Miserable Music. And in a Good Cause (UNICEF). The disc went on the top of the pile. Relatively unfamiliar music by great composers – check. Clever programming, with White’s stronger meat between slabs of Palestrina and Victoria, and Gesualdo mixed in to spice things up. One-voice-per-part performances, perfectly in tune, well balanced, with minimal vibrato, seamlessly lamenting away as though there literally would be no tomorrow. All there, present and correct. And Miserable.
But somehow, not miserable enough, or not for me, so I started to look for comparisons (not so easy). And wherever I turned, someone had something more personal, and therefore more satisfyingly miserable, to say about the music. Singing Victoria, La Colombina included the plainsong propers and roughened up the texture with vibrato, their singing dramatically directed towards the heart of the phrase. In Palestrina, Musica Contexta thickened the parts and brought a centre of gravity, a more full-throated delivery (singing down a third helped). The Hilliard Ensemble heightened still further Gesualdo’s alienation with a quicker and more capricious tempo. Nordic Voices also bring out the sudden dynamic contrasts implied by his setting, but these comparisons of nuance centre on a distinction between motet and madrigal.
In the most private and secular of contexts such as one’s listening room, the Tenebrae seem to demand a madrigalian response to their tales of agony and desperation. Perhaps this brief story of a disappointed man merely illustrates the pitfalls of being a critic. Or maybe it shows how early music in particular falls prey to “style” when that style belongs more to the performer than the composer.