Gesualdo: Tenebrae (ECM New Series 1422/23)

Carlo Gesualdo
Tenebrae

The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Ashley Stafford countertenor
John Potter tenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Mark Padmore tenor
Paul Hillier baritone
David Beavan bass
Recorded March 1990, Douai Abbey, England
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Those who have read my first post on this site will know that my teens marked an important transition in my listening life through the discovery of classical music, in particular by way of ECM’s New Series. At the same time, I found my mind and ears opening to more esoteric forms of musical expression. This, coupled with my growing interest in Japan, led me to discover Haino Keiji, who after decades is still the reigning troubadour of the Japanese underground and whose discography numbers well over 100 albums. During my first trip to Japan in the summer of 1998, I had the honor of attending two of his performances in Tokyo. Haino often likes to spin a CD before he takes the stage, coaxing his audience into a certain mood that prepares them for what they are about to experience. And sure enough, before one of these shows, he was playing a recording of choral music by Carlo Gesualdo (ca. 1561-1613). I had one of the greatest meetings of my life when a contact arranged an informal interview with Haino after the second show. During that conversation, Haino professed his adoration for Gesualdo, which, if you’ve ever heard Haino’s music, may come as something of a surprise. He went on to tell me that, in his estimation, Gesualdo had explored almost every harmonic possibility available to him, and that in so doing had left behind a musical corpus that was in its own way “complete.” I was already quite familiar with the Hilliard Ensemble’s standard-setting ECM recording of the Tenebrae Responsoria and, upon my return from Japan, I went back to this recording with renewed interest, and discovered in it far more than I had ever dreamed. Years later, I find that its mysteries still evade me. By “mysteries” I do not mean to mythologize an already indisputably gorgeous exposition of polyphony, but to uphold it as a singular testament of a troubled soul.

The details of Gesualdo’s life are likely familiar to anyone who has delved even briefly into the biographies of the Renaissance’s most revered composers, for in 1590, the Neapolitan-born nobleman would stain his reputation with the blood of his first wife, who he had murdered along with her not-so-secret lover in the throes of what they believed to be a clandestine passion. According to some researchers, his second infant son—whose paternity Gesualdo may have doubted—also fell victim to his indignation. In spite of his heinous crime(s), Don Carlo’s noble rank as Prince of Venosa absolved him of any and all legal repercussions, though as a precaution he relocated from Naples to a private residence in Fererra, where he would meet and marry his second wife before returning to his castle. Their marriage was not a happy one, and Gesualdo was plagued by depression after the death of their son in 1600. Speculations abound as to the nature of this depression, though the evidence suggests he’d been confronting the specter of his past deeds. These responsories for Holy Week were to be his final compositions, and their Passion texts deal appropriately with crucifixion and betrayal, reflecting the inner turmoil of a mind in decline.

I somehow feel it would be a disservice to Gesualdo to single out any particular responsory over the rest, just as it would be impossible to single out any of the tears I imagine were shed in his lifetime. Every piece blossoms with the unstoppable force of nature, even as it questions that very nature for having driven a man to such extremes. The music is knotted with gut-wrenching and unbridled honesty. It is a wellspring of supplication into which one never dives and from which one never emerges, filling one nostril with the stench of death and the other with the perfume of remorse. It seems to puncture holes in the sky and thread through them a most painful confession that supersedes our peripheral constellations. The music also has a peculiar quality that I can only describe as an “ascendant descension,” as it always seems to reaching toward some semblance of God, even as it feels itself being pulled underground, so that by the end its identity has been torn and exists in neither place. This would seem to be the nature of Gesualdo’s repentance: one that dissolves rather than resolves. The tectonic plates of his chosen texts shift beneath their execution. Even in the greatest moments of upheaval they retain earthly shape. The final Miserere alternates between recitative polyphony and monophonic chant, animating the formless into the material. This pattern continues until the final chant disappears into the darkness: a star that burned out millennia ago, but which only now blinks from the sky unnoticed.

It’s difficult to imagine the Hilliard Ensemble sounding better than they do here in their duly magnified incarnation. The addition of Ashley Stafford broadens the already heavenly palette of David James, and both of them form the shining sun in the center of this choral zodiac. The performances are replete with unpredictable key changes, rhythmic anomalies, and luscious morphological details, so that every word seems its own composition, bound to its neighbors by a narrative that may only be divinely understood.

Just last night I was present at a live performance by Pomerium in the beautiful acoustics of St. Patrick – St. Anthony Church in Hartford, Connecticut, where they sang two of the Gesualdo responsories in a program of carefully chosen mannerist music. Finally hearing Gesualdo live brought a whole new understanding of the tortured drama that binds them. Like the Hilliards, Pomerium’s conductor Alexander Blachly has been a tireless champion of music that is both well established in the repertoire and that which begs exposure. If anything, his fantastic ensemble taught me one thing: music from even the most despicable circumstances can indeed transcend those circumstances through each new listener. The power of collective musical ablution may have no equivalent, but in this recording we get to experience just that in solitude.

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