Gesualdo: Tenebrae Responsories

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

LABELS: Signum
WORKS: Tenebrae Responsories
PERFORMER: King’s Singers
When was anguish ever so sensual? In interpreting the responsories of Gesualdo – considered by many to be the composer’s confessional outpouring for having frenziedly stabbed his wife to death – the King’s Singers explore what pleasures may be bound up with pain. This disc complements previous recordings: while the Hilliard Ensemble explores the psychology of Gesualdo’s oeuvre for the final three days of Holy Week, the Taverner Consort recreates the tensions between composer and Church in the complete Good Friday service. The King’s Singers restrict themselves to Maundy Thursday, and by interspersing Gesualdo’s polyphony with nocturnal plainsong fragments, wrap his personal utterances in mystery. The liturgical ‘surround’ thus created is symptomatic of the King’s Singers’ tendency here to aestheticise a tortured reflection. There are many beautiful moments on this disc: the hushed opening statements, the achingly slow crescendos, the transparent diction and, above all, the blend of vocal timbres engulf the listener in a sound so perfect that dissonance becomes consonance. Evoking pleasure from pain may arguably be licensed by Gesualdo’s own sado-masochism, but dissolving the composer’s famed dissonances robs his music of the self-reproach vivified in the performances by the Hilliard and the Taverner. The Hilliard dares to sound ugly – voices poke out of the texture, note-clashes are highlighted through tuning adjustments, metric licence abounds – in order to follow a journey of inner turmoil. Andrew Parrott, conducting the Taverner Consort, carefully balances Gesualdo’s heated counterpoint against the judgement of the Church, embodied in the Good Friday plainsong. Although irresistible, the King’s Singers’ passion for aural perfection airbrushes both the harmonic tangles and inner crises of this music, removing the guilt that haunted its composer. Berta Joncus