Simon Thompson
MusicWeb International
April 2022

Low church Protestants like me don’t tend to pay too much attention to the church year, outside of Christmas and Easter, but the first time I even experienced the service of Tenebrae I found the experience very moving. Timed for Maundy Thursday, and mirroring the loneliness and isolation of the betrayed Christ, the service revolves around a series of texts as the lights are extinguished, until eventually the church is plunged into darkness and the congregation leaves in silence. My first Easter in Cambridge I heard it in the chapel of King’s College, followed by a Good Friday service that featured both of Tallis’ Lamentations, and the experience is still powerfully present to me several decades later.

That’s one reason why I really enjoyed this disc, but it’s by no means the only one. A far greater reason for you to invest in it is the brilliant musicianship of the Gesualdo Six. This tightly knit group of young singers made a profound impression on me during last year’s Lammermuir Festival, and their singing makes this one of the most effective and powerful Eastertide discs I’ve heard in a long time.

That’s partly due to their choice of repertoire (see above), but even if I hadn’t had those powerful personal experiences of Holy Week, I’d still be putty in the hands of any ensemble that can sing Tallis’ Lamentations like this. Having only five singers rather than a fuller choir grants an immeasurable sense of intimacy to the sound, drawing the listener even deeper into the world of penitence and loss that these masterpieces inhabit. Owain Park, the group’s director, also writes in his booklet note of the group’s 'ability to make each vocal line our own while adding to a collective spirit'. That’s a nice summary of whence they derive their effectiveness, as is the fact they recorded this disc while standing in a circular formation. Park says, '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.' In fact, it’s not just gripping: it’s seductive and completely bewitching, deepening the intimacy of the meditation, and providing a completely different experience to that of my previous favourite recordings from The Tallis Scholars and the Taverner Consort. The unity of blend in their singing is transfixing, but each voice is so palpable that you feel you can reach out and hold it. I’m absolutely in love with the countertenor sound, in particular, but the triumphant unity of the sound is an out-and-out marvel.

Moving from this to Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responsories is to leave Tallis’ comforting consonances and instead to plunge the listener immediately into a sound world of strangeness and emotional exposure. Gone is the harmonic tonal stability of Tallis: instead Gesualdo uses the harmonies of Mediterranean sunshine to evoke spiritual darkness, and these singers know just how to tap into that incongruity so as to make it work to powerful spiritual and musical effect. Gesualdo’s famously bold use of harmony and musical dissonance is put to the full service of the text and spiritual message here, nowhere more so that’s in the strange rippling lines of the second responsory as the disciples take flight from Christ. It’s not just the beauty of the voices that produces the success of this recording, but the way the singers understand the structure of the sequence, exploiting the light-and-shade of the work and reinforcing the sense of a tightly constructed entity. This culminates in the sacred drama of the Third Nocturne, but throughout the translucent textures and pellucid beauty of the sound draw the listener into the musical argument in a way that’s difficult to resist.

Two contemporary works make up the remainder of the menu. Judith Bingham’s Watch With Me is an amalgam of sermon, lullaby and psychological horror, setting a poem by Wilfred Owen alongside the Gethsemane text. It’s a powerful evocation of loneliness, but it’s not at all forbidding. Joanna Ward’s Christus factus est is more experimental and works through combining juxtapositions (slow and fast, concord and discord, words and vocalises). It’s rather abstract but it’s effective in its own way.

It's for Tallis and Gesualdo that I’ll be coming back to this, though. 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.