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Gesualdo - Tenebrae Responsories  

Kings Singers
Gabriel Crouch, baritone, Philip Lawson, baritone, David Hurley, counter tenor, Robin Tyson Counter tenor. Stephen Connolly, bass, Paul Phoenix, tenor

Signum SIGCD048 [63 mins]

The intensity of these responsores, for Matins on Maundy Thursday, may well amaze you. With assistance, Carlo Gesualdo (c.1566-1613) murdered his wife and her lover in 1690, so had good cause to dedicate his later life to penitence. Severe and increasing feelings of guilt fuelled a great deal of his sombre religious music. The biblical texts are full of suffering and self-reproach. "Rarely do we encounter a renaissance composer whose life and work are so closely interrelated" (Bo Holten).

The six singers of the current line-up of The King's Singers are perfectly balanced and a great deal of trouble must have been taken to get ideal microphone placement and sound in Douai Abbey - the recordings took place over six days in January 2004. There is an attractive slightly nasal quality to the tone, and little by way of consoling smoothness. Christ's Agony and that of those around him is depicted with utmost vividness. Full texts with translations are provided and they are essential; whilst each singer delivers his words from the heart, the overlapping counterpoint makes the meaning indecipherable without the eyes to unravel the sense of the verses.

Only recently has it emerged that Gesualdo's trade-mark sensuality and extreme expressiveness was part of a wider Neapolitan school, with other composers (Nenns, Masque and Lacorcia) treading a similar path. But Gesualdo seems to have been their peer in writing desperate, anguished music of unsurpassed poignancy, translating his own experience into music 'further out' than anyone else in his time, four hundred years ago. Bo Holten likens him to "that other half-mad genius, Berlioz".

The cover illustration shows the candelabra with but one candle still alight after Matins and Lauds, and only a single candle shining in the Church after the others had been extinguished one by one during the Benedictus. With Signum's usual scholarly back-up and presentation this is an essential Easter-tide purchase.


© Peter Grahame Woolf