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Carlo Gesualdo (c1561-1613)

Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday

The Gesualdo Six, Owain Park (director) Detailed performer information
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Label: Hyperion
Recording details: August 2020
St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: March 2022
Total duration: 70 minutes 4 seconds

The expressive extremity of the music and the notoriety of the life seem inextricably bound together where Gesualdo is concerned. Here, his Maundy Thursday Tenebrae Responsories provide the climax of a programme which opens with an astonishingly fine rendition of the Tallis Lamentations.


‘Here The Gesualdo Six tackle two of Renaissance polyphony’s warhorses, an imaginative pairing that also welcomes two short works by contemporary composers. Tallis’s Lamentations and Gesualdo’s Responsories have been recorded many times by ensembles of the highest calibre. In both cases The Gesualdo Six do more than stake their claim … one has to applaud the element of risk-taking in their performance … if you don’t take risks with Gesualdo, you may as well not bother. In any case, it was time we heard them in the music of the composer whose name they have taken; the rest of the set is eagerly anticipated’ (Gramophone)

‘The half-dozen male singers of Gesualdo Six, under the alert and sensitive direction of Owain Park, have already produced a quartet of first-rate recordings. This one, exploring the crepuscular soundworld of the Tenebrae services for Holy Week, is equally compelling … in sum, these are accounts of haunting beauty—warmly recommended’ (BBC Music Magazine)» More

‘Technically and emotionally challenging music for Holy Week and, as The Gesualdo Six’s director Owain Park puts it, ‘at times the harmonic movement seems almost unhinged, at others spellbindingly beautiful.’ And before the Gesualdo there’s the cooler but no less remarkable Lamentations by Thomas Tallis: wonderfully precise singing held by a jewel of a recording. And a couple of modern pieces as well, so it’s as though we’re looking at Holy Week through a different lens. One of my Easter highlights’ (BBC Record Review)

‘The mournfulness of the Tallis is intensified by the superb blend of the singers, whose ability to spin mellifluously long lines adds a timeless sense to this evocation of abandonment and desolation. Haunting and heartfelt, the final appeals for Jerusalem to repent are musical moments to savour. By contrast, the Gesualdo profits from the individuality of some of the voices and an acute sense of drama, not unlike that of the brightly lit foreground of a mannerist painting. Relishing a range of timbre and emotion, the singers are not afraid to take some dramatic risks, in some sense mirroring the outrageous harmonies of the music itself … The Gesualdo Six prove insightful and thought-provoking guides in this exploration of the darkness of the passion before the dawn of Easter’ (Limelight, Australia)» More

‘One of the most effective and powerful Eastertide discs I’ve heard in a long time … the wondrous singing, combined with the first class recorded sound, makes this a deeply involving disc, one that draws you in and won’t let go’ (MusicWeb International)» More

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Between 1560 and 1569, Thomas Tallis set the first five verses from the Book of Lamentations, a reflection ascribed to the prophet Jeremiah which laments the destruction of Jerusalem. The texts correspond to the first Lesson of Maundy Thursday Matins, and they became popular among Continental composers during the early 1400s. It was not until the middle of the following century that multiple settings, by composers including Robert White, John Mundy, William Byrd and Osbert Parsley, appeared in England. Perhaps this was due to the period’s shifting religious requirements—composers were obliged to write in the musical style of the moment as the crown was thrust between Protestant and Catholic monarchs—which encouraged them to find a more ‘international’ manner of expression, unshackled from the demands of their royal patrons.

Tallis, perhaps more so than his compatriots, has the ability to set the scene and deliver a story. Special attention is given to the opening statement of each of the work’s two parts, evoking sorrow through an expressive scalic motif that falls in the first part and rises in the second.

Each biblical verse in the original Hebrew text of the Lamentations opens with a letter of the alphabet. Composers setting the text may have encountered these as ornate illuminations in the manuscript—strange symbols which had some obscure, mystical meaning. Tallis follows suit, preceding the Latin verses with settings of a Hebrew letter; taken together, they form a series of musical tableaux that have a special, more melodic compositional style. These are predominantly kept separate, acting as moments of relief and solitude, with one exception: the first letter, ‘Aleph’, leads into the Latin verse as though the composer is urgent to begin the story. At times the Latin verses feel like string-writing—we enjoyed imagining the bowing and passing this around the ensemble—with the words presented in an almost conversational fashion.

The texts appear consecutively in both scripture and liturgy, but the settings are quite different in character and length. The second part begins in a distinct, darker mode, with a more anguished feel. As the passages build, there is much less room to breathe in the verses, which continuously gather steam as if there were some resentment bubbling underneath.

Despite their obvious liturgical use during Holy Week, it is possible that these settings were intended for more intimate, private use; in this sense, one might draw parallels with the later music of William Byrd (and indeed his own set of Lamentations which sadly are missing an entire voice part for much of the work). Much like in the closing section of Byrd’s Ne irascaris, Domine, throughout Tallis’s Lamentations the composer lingers on moments of desolation and despair, reinforcing passages such as the weeping of Jerusalem (‘Plorans ploravit’) by restating the musical material. The Book of Lamentations, which alludes to the Jewish captivity in Babylon, may have struck a spiritual chord with English Catholics, who doubtless identified with the cry to ‘turn to the Lord your God’. This is illustrated most potently during the closing moments of each part, with these words emphasized in repetitions of an arch-like musical figure whose grace belies their deeper, more personal meaning.

In Watch with me, Judith Bingham sets words from Matthew’s account of the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane and from Wilfred Owen’s poem Exposure. In combination, these texts evoke a powerful description of suffering, the loneliness contained in the ancient story here conflated with a more contemporary account of a terrified soldier driven to madness in the aching cold. The biblical text is often set in the lowest voices alone as if delivered formally from the pulpit, whereas the poetry is treated more melodically, with chromatic scalic patterns giving the work a claustrophobic feel as the lines struggle to break free. The piece was commissioned by the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey for a performance on 30 June 2016, the eve of the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.

Towards the end of his life, and some twenty-one years after partial estrangement from society due to his crimes—murdering two people and using his title as Prince of Venosa to shield himself from retribution—Carlo Gesualdo published three sets of Tenebrae Responsories for Holy Week. The texts trace the events of the Passion, and were presumably performed in almost total darkness save for a handful of candles which were gradually extinguished. Gesualdo adheres to the rigidly austere formality of the Nocturns, sung liturgically in three groups of three Responsories, and he twists harmonies and melodic lines to create a profound musical expression of desolation.

When working within the confines of a liturgical service, there is a formal structure in which some of the text (and therefore the music) is repeated. This poses a question as to how the performers should treat the material in the repeat (or ‘Presa’). The words have already been heard, so does the story progress? In some cases it makes sense to build further—for example, in the seventh Responsory there is more urgency the second time round, the crowd now uttering wicked speeches against Jesus. At other times, it makes more sense to increase the emotional intensity by becoming more introverted and reflective, such as at the end of the sixth Responsory (‘Melius illi erat’).

Painting with long, broad brush strokes, Gesualdo sets the opening scene of the work with what might seem to be a fairly restrained harmonic palette. Later in the first Responsory, however, listen to how he uses the repetition of chords at ‘Pater’ and ‘fiat’ to link different harmonic territories, making the connection seem disarmingly obvious. Gesualdo finds ways to juxtapose tonalities that seem worlds apart, using sleight of hand to change just one or two notes at a time, thus propelling the chords into completely different dimensions.

The opening of the second Responsory presents an unusual succession of entries. Each new entrant becomes quickly entangled in a web of suspensions, building to a thick texture with punctuating dissonances. The composer then unfurls one of his most engaging musical scenes: sense how the eyes widen through the raising of teasing thirds at ‘Sustinete hic’ (‘Stay here’). A cry to ‘take flight’, depicted by a cascade of fast notes, is followed by one of the most harmonically gut-wrenching moments: the juxtaposition of opposing chords at ‘et ego vadam’. The magic of this music is that we as listeners are always kept on our toes, waiting for the composer to launch us in another direction. Passages that might otherwise have been delivered in a restrained manner to match the formality of the occasion are stripped of their nuance and taken to extremes. Note a contrast of this kind in the eighth Responsory (‘Una hora non potuistis’), where the sleeping disciples are suddenly awakened by an explosion of energy (‘Surgite’), before the music falls away to a calming end (‘et orate’).

The layering of these effects is what contributes to the heightened tension and sense of drama. Gesualdo shuffles his materials as if arranging them in a gallery, and calls upon the lower voices to highlight shadows and darkness in the text. In the third Responsory this rich tessitura illuminates the sufferings that Christ has borne (‘languores’), while in the eighth it portrays his slumbering followers (‘Quid dormitis?’).

As the end of the service approaches, the music becomes no less turbulent. In the eighth Responsory, despite its brevity, the composer whips up a storm in a flurry of consonants as Jesus accuses his disciples of having been led into temptation (‘sed festinat tradere me’). In a final act of defiance—an attempt to thwart the triumph of evil represented by the betrayal—Gesualdo throws everything in his toolkit onto the page to incite the crowd, as if they had multiplied ten-fold in this masterclass of short-form imitation (‘cum gladiis’). The solemnity of the Maundy Thursday service is briefly lost in this moment of chaos: perhaps a nod towards the noise made to symbolize the ‘earthquake’ at the Resurrection before the congregation departs in silence.

Gesualdo is often portrayed as a radical in a conventional field, but it was composers such as Monteverdi who forged a new path and stitched the seams between the Renaissance and Baroque. The Responsories show Gesualdo’s adherence to the old, ‘Mannerist’ style, full of profuse exaggeration and dramatic hyperbole, yet confined to a polyphonic framework. He had taken all the elements as far as they would go, and so it is even more remarkable that the resulting music is a canvas of vivid colours and textures in which the most simple and poignant moments shine through.

In Christus factus est, Joanna Ward breaks down the words into their syllabic components, treating them more like posts on which to hang various musical cells. The texture alternates between a duet for the two highest voices, a segment of chordal building blocks, and an eerie bitonal section which is chilling in its childlike simplicity. The work is a play on formality, challenging perceptions of melody with simultaneous hints at both plainchant and folk song: the austere turned colloquial. The text is commonly used as an antiphon at Mass on Maundy Thursday, and it features later in the Easter sequence with further lines added. Hidden beneath the altar table in the church, the final candle burns out and we are left shrouded in darkness.

Owain Park © 2022

On an overcast evening in March 2014 we came together to give our first performance: Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday. I remember hastily scribbling down a name for the group to put on a poster that would be displayed on railings around Cambridge—little did we know it would stick!

In preparing for this recording, I dug through our archives and found a slightly grainy video of this first concert. There is a lot that is raw and untamed about that performance, but the excitement between the performers is palpable. Many of us were trained in the ranks of the choral tradition in the UK, but we hadn’t worked in a small consort before. The ability to make each vocal line our own while adding to a collective spirit was thrilling. That initial spark ignited a fire under us that spurred us on to give a second performance, and then a third …

That being said, we were (and still are) in no doubt that this is extremely challenging music, some of the most difficult we have encountered both technically—with twisting melodic lines that push vocal stamina and test our ability to nestle notes in the right places—and in terms of the subject matter. At times the harmonic movement seems almost unhinged, at others spellbindingly beautiful.

We have taken inspiration from Holy Week’s Tenebrae services, which draw their name from the Latin ‘tenebrae factae sunt’ (‘there was darkness’). The most striking and dramatic feature of these services is the gradual extinction of candles to the point of darkness. We wanted to present a programme that explores music for this service through different lenses. Judith Bingham’s Watch with me links back to the Renaissance pieces, closing with words that are picked up in the first Responsory by Gesualdo: ‘Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.’ We commissioned British composer Joanna Ward to write a setting of Christus factus est, knowing her minimalist style would provide stark contrast to the incandescent polyphony preceding it.

In a departure from our previous recordings, we set ourselves up in a circular formation. This enabled us to see each other’s faces and to pick up on the slightest movement, playing off one another as the lines intertwined. We hope that this creates a gripping sonic picture, capturing the unrelenting nature of the Renaissance repertoire while allowing the listener to focus on the more soloistic textures in the contemporary works as they appear from different points around the circle.

Owain Park © 2022

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