Thursday, 30 May 2013

The Tallis Scholars - Tallis at 40: Gesualdo at 400

Carlo Gesualdo Prince of Venosa
Carlo Gesualdo
Prince of Venosa
For the final concert in the 2012/13 Choral at Cagodan series, the Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars returned to celebrate both their own 40th anniversary and Gesualdo's 400th. For their concert on Wednesday 29 May 2013 at Cadogan Hall they performed Carlo Gesualdo's Tenebrae Responsories for Holy Saturday alongside other works of maverick creativity providing us with a remarkable survey of how a variety of composers in the 16th century veered off from the clarity of pure polyphony into the thickets of more chromatic writing. The result was a group of works as astonishing in many ways as Gesualdo's Responsories, with motets by Orlande de Lassus, Jacobus Gallus, Giaches de Wert, Benedictus Appenzeller, Cipriano de Rore, Hans Leo Hassler, Mikolay Zielenski and Claudio Monteverdi.

The first half of the concert was devoted to the nine responsories which make up the Tenebrae Responsories for Holy Saturday by Carlo Gesualdo (1566 - 1613). We tend to think of Gesualdo as rather an extreme composer, after all he wrote music of striking harmonic complexity and daring as well as murdering his wife and her lover. But his harmonically unstable chromatic language was in fact rooted in the style of other composers in the Naples area and, as the programme note for Wednesday's concert pointed out, he was essentially conservative in that he ignored the advances of others and worked in the genre of polyphony all his life even though it became outmoded.

Responsories combine a verse and refrain in a particular structure and are used to follow readings. The tenebrae service had a tri-partite structure. It was divided into three nocturnes, and each nocturne contained three Psalms and three readings, each reading being followed by a responsory. So for Holy Saturday there would be nine responsories in all. The works were not intended to be performed as a single whole, but dotted throughout a service and acting as a complement to the basic chant of the reading (readings would be chanted in Latin). By performing all nine of Gesualdo's responsories for Holy Saturday (the day before Easter Sunday) in a single 35 minute sequence, Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars gave us an intense and concentrated dose of Gesualdo in a way which the composer may never have intended.


Gesualdo's music is not strictly illustrative in its word setting, but he constantly uses harmonic surprise and instability to underpin the words. His basic melodic structures are not necessarily chromatic, but he can apply harmonic shifts under them which can be truly alarming. And he changes on a pin, so that an astonishing passage can come out of nowhere.

He does use some word painting, the chromatic melody on Plange (weep) which opens the third responsory clearly brings out weeping and in the eighth he has a descending phrase on descendentibus (those who go down) and an extraordinary blossoming on liber (free). But it is the way his writing underpins the emotional feel of the music which is astonishing and the fact that such passages as Accingite vos, sacerdotes, et plangite (in responsory three) sound so remarkably modern.

The Tallis Scholars used a total of 12 singers with a line up of four sopranos, two altos, four tenors and two basses, to cover the music's  essentially six part-structure.  They provided a nice rich sound with a good clarity of texture. But Gesualdo does not keep the same vocal layout throughout and it did seem as though, when the tenors were not divided, they were perhaps a little too dominant in the texture.

Gesualdo's writing is almost deliberately awkward and there is a balance to be had between highlighting the awkwardness and making it all seem too easy. Generally the group got this right and they were all highly expressive in the way they performed, combining accuracy with a willingness to let rip at powerful moments. That said, there were some moments when you wondered whether what you were hearing was deliberate rawness or simply a performance which had the odd slightly ragged corner.

By the end of the nine movements, I was strongly of the feeling that I would have preferred to have them interspersed and complemented by chant rather than as a solid lump, though there was nothing lumpen about the performance, quite the contrary.

Part two opened with the motet Timor et tremor by Orlande de Lassus (1532 - 1594). In this Lassus abandons his customary poise to use striking harmonic daring to emulate the words. Here Lassus uses Gesualdo like harmonic progressions and mood swings, but with a definite view to word painting. The Tallis Scholars sang with fine control and gave use some wonderfully pointed rhythms in the closing phrases. Mirabile Mysterium by Jacobus Gallus ((1550 - 1591) again puts and extraordinary chromatic instability to illustrative uses, this time responding to the text's explanation of Christ's dual nature as God and man.

Ascendent Iesu in naviculam by Giaches de Wert (1535 - 1596) is more conventional but de Wert uses a madrigalian freedom to describe the storm on the Sea of Galilee. The ensemble's performance was full of lovely rhythms but it was quite discreet and careful of the music's beauty. I did wish that they'd been a little more incisive. Musae Jovis by Benedictus Appenzeller (1480 - 1558) is a lament on the death of Josquin des Prez. It is a leisurely elegant and balanced piece, but with the occasional striking oddness of cadence. The ensemble's performance was poised but seemed to be slightly lacking, perhaps due to pressure of time constraints.

The next piece was actually a madrigal, by Cipriano de Rore (1515 - 1565). Calami sonum ferentes is a setting of Catullus which rejects the joyful pleasures of music. De Rore set it for four low voices (here sung by just four men, two tenor and two basses). The vocal lines seemed to have challengingly wide ranges, and the dark, chromatic texture of the piece was astonishing. The four singers, whilst a little challenged (the tessitura seemed to give the tenors some pause), gave an intensely plangent performance.

Hans Leo Hassler (1564 - 1612) used a pair of chromatic themes in Ad dominum cum tribularer as a way of depicting the distress of the text ('In my distress I cried unto the Lord'), thus producing a piece which hardly sounds like Hassler at all. The Polish composer Mikolay Zielenski has just two collections of works surviving. His motet Vox in Rama depicts Rachel weeping for her children and is a short piece that is simply beautiful.

Finally the group gave a truly perfect account of Claudio Monteverdis Adoramus te. Not especially chromatic or daring, but a supreme example of the way the composer develop his expressive means.

As an encore the group gave us something completely different, the Victorian madrigal Lay a Garland by Robert Pearsall, still chromatic, but in a vastly different way.

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