Classical CD Reviews

GESUALDO: Responsories; Miserere; VICTORIA: Lamentations for Holy Saturday – Tenebrae/ Nigel Short – DGG Archiv

A rather rare and extremely effective comparison of two diverse composers.

Published on May 16, 2013

GESUALDO: Responsories of the Office of Tenebrae for Holy Saturday; Miserere; VICTORIA: Lamentations for Holy Saturday – Tenebrae/ Nigel Short – DGG Archiv Production B0018174, 67:33 [Distr. by Universal] ****:

Carlo Gesualdo (1561-1613) must have been one hoot of guy to hang with. Wikipedia, hopefully with a little humor, lists him as an Italian nobleman, lutenist, composer, and murderer. An odd foursome to be sure, but there may indeed be some truth to it. At least Hollywood thinks so, dedicating three films to his life. But get this—his family owned since 1560 all of Venosa, Italy, and his uncle was Saint Charles Borromeo, who never murdered anyone but also never wrote music like Gesualdo (is there a moral there?). His mother was the niece of Pope Pius IV, so the church, and evidently those things the church didn’t like, were an integral part of his life from the beginning. Okay, the murders—his wife was unfaithful for nearly two years, the composer found out, caught them in the act in his own house, and with the help of his servants killed them both, stabbing his wife multiple times, deep-stabbing her lover with a sword and shooting him in the head, and then dressing him in his wife’s nightgown before moving the bodies out in public at his front door. He was a nobleman and immune from prosecution, though there are rumors he killed his second son by his wife (doubting its paternity) and her father-in-law attempting revenge. Well, we all have our problems.

But his were severe. His second wife eventually accused him of abuse (really?) and there were rumors she killed him in the end, though most sources maintain her virtue. He was tormented by something later in life, evidence suggesting it might well be the murders he was complicit in, and his music reflects an almost twisted sense of chromaticism at its—yes—best. Though working in the confines of the traditional madrigal structure which he had perfected after studies in Ferrara, and always within the safe textures of tonality, he brought word-painting to a new level and his expressive use of melody sometimes feels stretched to the breaking point. Nevertheless, there is no indication at all that his music was ever to be considered anything but the utmost in sincerity and devotion, colored only by acts of life that finally had their impact in his rediscovered desire for faith and hope for forgiveness. In his art, paradoxically, tragedy reflected itself in high craftsmanship.

Moving to Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), who lived at about the same time, is like going from a brothel to a convent. Here we find musical perfection perhaps to remain unknown until Mozart: clarity of line, consideration for the abilities of the singers, perfectly matched harmonies that fall well for the voice, and a sense of devotion manifested in music which reflects a view of life that is both beautiful and sacred. He was an organist, singer, and priest, sometimes referred to as the “Spanish Palestrina” for his contributions to counter-reformation music. Victoria was given extreme leeway in ability to travel and study for a priest, and his reputation was pristine in life and death. Musically he is almost without peer among his contemporaries.

The works here, three sets of responsories for Tenebrae for Holy Saturday (there are also Holy Thursday and Friday, making up Gesualdo’s masterpiece). His Miserere, and Victoria’s Lamentations make for an excellent Holy week contrast among styles of the Ferrara Italian and Spanish/high Roman styles. The music may not seem so personalized until you hear it like you do on this disc, and suddenly it becomes truly reflective of the different personalities and lives of the composers. Each was devout in his own way, though the life stories are almost diametrically opposite. Tenebrae, long a specialist in music like this, brings an exceptional virtuosity and sensitivity to this music that makes such comparisons all the more interesting. Archiv’s sound is resonant, airy, and of brilliant clarity.

—Steven Ritter

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