GESUALDO: Sacrae Cantiones (Book 2) –Vocalconsort Berlin/ James Wood – Harmonia mundi HMC 902123, 69:22 ****:
Having just reviewed a disc of mainly music by Gesualdo I’ll direct you there for a brief summary of his life and controversies. His Tenebrae responses (of which Holy Saturday is covered on the aforementioned disc) and Sacrae Cantiones (Book 1) are the extent of his sacred music, at least until now. The fact is that there is also a second book of sacred canticles, and on this 400th anniversary of the composer’s death, all-around musician and musicologist James Wood decided—about four years ago, after earlier aborted attempts—to reconstruct the six and seven-part works (which were missing the bassus and sextus parts) and try to reconstruct what the music might have sounded like in 1603.
It was no easy feat. Gesualdo was a magnificently gifted and unpredictable composer in terms of his chromaticism and wild melodic leaps, though according to Wood his universe is also one of rigorous rules as well. This was at once highly difficult and liberating at the same time. And of course missing two lines in a six or seven part motet can make for some really divergent results from what Gesualdo may or may not have intended. But there is also a lot of imitation in his music, and Wood says that each imitation point is like a skeleton that supports the music, and the process can be as trying to solve a crossword puzzle. Wood backs up everything he says, with a listed link online as to his methodology and manner of process.
I can say only one thing in favor of this “new” piece—it sounds like Gesualdo, and there can really be no higher compliment. Considering the importance of the composer, his limited sacred output, and the fact that restoring Book Two almost adds a full third to that output, this is an important effort of no mean quality. The 16 men and women that make up the Vocalconsort Berlin (they don’t all sing at once) are fully in control of this music, and the sound captured in the Teldex Studio in Berlin is enveloping and clear as a bell.