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Marian Consort Gives Intense Voice To Gesualdo

Pages from an early edition of Gesualdo motets.

Pages from an early edition of Gesualdo motets.


Gesualdo: Sacrae Cantiones
The Marian Consort; Rory McCleery, director
Delphian DCD34176

By Laurence Vittes

CD  REVIEW — Rory McCleery’s recording with his Marian Consort of the 19 solo motets from Book I of Carlo Gesualdo’s Sacrarum Cantionum Quinque Vocibus Liber Primus has virtually no competition in the catalogue.

gesualdo-cover-400Heard cumulatively over the hour the work takes the beautifully balanced and mellifluous five-member ensemble to deliver the music’s almost painfully sensitive intensity, it is clear why the romantic yet modern notion of a colorful, self-obsessed Renaissance genius writing music of such expressive intent and visionary harmonic means seized the popular imagination. Fascinated by Gesualdo, Igor Stravinsky celebrated the 400th anniversary of the composer’s birth in the score he wrote for George Balanchine’s 1960 ballet, Monumentum pro Gesualdo.

Listening for the first time to music that has been recorded infrequently, the reality sinks in of Gesualdo immersed in the most dread aspects of mortality and listening in his own kind of solitary confinement. On a more elevated plane, these motets — printed in Naples in 1603 by Costantino Vitali — display the wonderful variety of his art.

Though we inevitably single him out for his violent character (he murdered his wife and her lover) and for his striking use of chromaticism, his narratives are always subsumed in his highly professional craft, most comprehensively in the motet “Hei mihi, Domine.” Gesualdo uses the familiar major-minor harmonic shift he made famous in the madrigal “Moro Lasso” — and what musicologist Glenn Watkins calls “uncanny progressions” in two of the gentlest motets, “O vos omnes” and “Deus refugium et virtus.”

Whatever the intended audience or how the composer himself thought of the music as an entity, the impact of this variety — especially while listening straight through on a recording, as most listeners will — can be devastating. “Ave dulcissima Maria” moves with surges of energy through rough redemptive grace to a darker place. Then a sudden upward chromatic rise in the tenor line that mysteriously materializes out of nowhere leads to one last darkening before the high spiritual line holds and lasting redemption is achieved.

Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613)

Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613)

By comparison, “Reminiscere miserationum tuarum” is warmly human, open, and generous, with a metaphysical, ambiguous close. “Dignare me laudare te” is a brief, breathless, hectoring dialogue at a high level of philosophical discourse. “Domine, ne despicias deprecationem meam” hits a more conventionally beautiful kind of spiritual ecstasy, during which the soprano and countertenor meander effortlessly. An electrifying harmonic moment at the washing of tears in “Laboravi in gemitu meo” marks the most personally expressive of the set, with countertenor McCleery crooning as much as the style permits.

McCleery’s highly detailed and elegant liner notes provide all the ingredients for linking your own visceral response to Gesualdo’s vivid music to the texts, whether you read ahead or just let the music hit you unprepared.

Soprano Emma Walshe, mezzo-soprano Esther Brazil, tenors Ashley Turnell and Guy Cutting, baritone Christopher Borrett, and McCleery are rich even when at their most ethereal. Their intonation is enchanting, and the recording in Merton College Chapel, Oxford, is miked just right, the full splendor of the sound given an almost tactile quality to the acoustical space, like displaying musical diamonds on velvet cloth.

Laurence Vittes writes regularly about music for The Huffington Post, Gramophone, Bachtrack, Strings, Audiophile Audition, and the Southern California Early Music Society.

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Palestrina Adds Sonic Glow To Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel Choir sings music by Palestrina on its new Deutsche Grammophon recording.

The Sistine Chapel Choir sings music by Palestrina on its new Deutsche Grammophon recording.


Palestrina: Missa Papae Marcelli, Motets.
Sistine Chapel Choir, Massimo Palombella (chief chorus master)
Deutsche Grammophon 289 479 6131

By Richard S. Ginell

CD REVIEW — Until 2015, the Sistine Chapel Choir had never been heard on a commercial recording. Nor had the famous Sistine Chapel itself ever been used as a recording venue.

palestrinacover-400But two developments made it happen. The current director of the choir, Massimo Palombella, invoked the spirit of Vatican II — the ecumenical council initiated by Pope John XXIII that ran from 1962 to 1965 — which stated that the church should engage in a dialogue with modern culture and not remain so cloistered. And it took an enlightened Pope Francis — who happens to be a knowledgeable classical music buff (in an interview, he discussed his preferences for conductors like Wilhelm Fürtwangler and Hans Knappertsbusch!) — to give the go-ahead for Deutsche Grammophon to make the first recordings in the Sistine Chapel with what is the Pope’s choir.

The first release, Cantate Domino, was a sampler of music from Gregorian chant to Palestrina, de Lasso, Victoria, and Allegri, most of which was written expressly for performance in the Sistine Chapel. This followup CD is devoted entirely to Palestrina: the Missa Papae Marcelli and nine short motets, two of which (“Veritas mea et misericordia mea” and “Jubilate Deo”) are listed as first recordings.

Missa Papae Marcelli is the most recorded of all of Palestrina’s works; the piece’s discography goes all the way back to 1927. Yet DG claims a scoop: that this is the “world premiere recording” of the original 1567 version of the Missa long hidden in the Vatican archives. The main difference is the omission of Agnus Dei II, which, according to Palombella, was not authorized by Palestrina to be performed in this context, so instead the singers repeat Agnus Dei I, replacing the words “dona nobis pacem” with “miserere nobis.”

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

In the time between this recording and its predecessor, some lessons seem to have been learned in the art of recording in this space. Built in 1483, the Sistine Chapel is a highly reverberant room — wonderfully so if music heard there is meant to be a sensual or spiritual experience. But for music as intricately polyphonic as Palestrina, it is a highly problematic environment if clarity of voices has any priority. Many other recordings have been made of the Missa in reverberant locales, but none of the rooms on the recordings I’ve sampled have as long a decay as the Sistine Chapel.

For this Missa, however, the choir’s 30 adult and 20 boys voices sound a little clearer and more closely miked than on Cantate Domino, though the syllables are still hard to make out — ironic for a performance of a work that in its time, as Palombella puts it, “saved polyphony by ensuring the intelligibility of text.” Nevertheless, this is a marvelous, well-trained, sensitively phrasing choir, and when the treble voices soar into the airy, resonant acoustics, they achieve both the spiritual and the sensual all at once.

Even ye of little religious faith may find it easy to lose yourselves in these luxurious sounds.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.

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