The Tudor Consort in Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responsories

Tenebrae Responsories for Good Friday by Carlo Gesualdo

The Tudor Consort directed by Michael Stewart

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Friday 10 April

The re-creation of entire liturgies of the medieval and renaissance church has long been a popular activity for early music groups and The Tudor Consort has a long history of such achievements under all its directors from the founder, Simon Ravens, on. Some have been intensely rewarding, but the Tenebrae Responsories of Gesualdo (1560-1613), (cf Campion and Monteverdi, both born 1567, Shakespeare, born 1564), were a challenge.

They were undoubtedly a challenge for the choir, which their director Michael Stewart led admirably through twelve polyphonic motets of extreme complexity and harmonic originality.

Gesualdo’s music was engrossing, but there was simply too much chant, and I wondered whether we would have lost anything if each had been somewhat abbreviated.

Familiar as I was with Gesualdo’s music, I was repeatedly surprised by the chromatic part writing that must have been alarming dissonance to the ears of 1600. The effect was remarkably modern, as tortured contrapuntal lines expressed in music the sometimes cruel and harrowing images and events that the words of the Responsories called up: they narrate the events at the Last Supper, Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

The Tudor Consort has always paid attention to the theatrical element, and here, we had the church dimly lit by candles on the columns separating nave from the side aisles and a candelabra of a dozen candles in the sanctuary behind the singers. One by one they were extinguished, the tradition of the Easter Tenebrae services, till only one remains, representing Christ. And we’d been warned to desist from applause till the traditional ‘Great Noise’ broke out, signifying the earthquake reported after the crucifixion.

The service is in three sections, one each for the three days in question, each introduced by an Antiphon and Psalm, chanted from the pulpit by Michael Stewart, then three alternating Lessons, drawn from the Bible and Responsories, that represent Christ’s words or thoughts and later an observer’s comments on the Crucifixion; the lessons and antiphons are chants while the Responsories are Gesualdo’s music.

It was the Antiphons and Lessons that introduced each Responsory, handled very well I must say, but to rather extended and unvarying chant, that I felt might have been abbreviated, for no one, I imagine, was following, in the dark, the English translations in the programme.

Chants, dare I say, are of limited interest, while Gesualdo’s music for the Responsories is remarkable, original, exciting, expressive, dramatic in its attention to the drama of the words of each piece.

The Tudor Consort sang throughout with their accustomed clarity and precision, stylistic awareness, careful diction and varied colouring and dynamics.


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