Witnessing to their versatility and confirming their core strengths, The Gesualdo Six use their fifth album to explore Holy Week’s expressions of darkness and the associated human emotions of solitude and betrayal. Such emotions are starkly expressed in the Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday by Gesualdo, which are recorded here in their entirety, surrounded by Tallis’s two classic settings from the Lamentations of Jeremiah and works from contemporary composers Judith Bingham and Joanna Ward.
Recorded with the singers in a circular formation, the music comes across with both intimacy and at times, urgency. 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. Take for example Tristis est anima mea with its rollercoaster ride of emotions encompassing sadness, fear and resignation.
A further demonstration of the group’s mastery of style comes with music from two current women composers. Judith Bingham’s Watch with me is an atmospheric blend of biblical text with poetry by Wilfred Owen, while Christus factus est by Joanna Ward employs minimalist techniques to produce thoughtful but muted vocal colours, not unlike the darkened churches in which most of this program would have been sung.
The Gesualdo Six prove insightful and thought-provoking guides in this exploration of the darkness of the passion before the dawn of Easter.