Vocalconsort Berlin / James Wood

Carlo Gesualdo: Sacrae Cantiones, Liber Secundus

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These motets are "new" works by radical late-Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo. They date from the end of his life, contemporary with his last books of madrigals and with the Tenebrae Responsories, two of which are also heard here as a frame for the program. The second book of these Sacrae Cantiones came down to the present in an incomplete state, with two (or one) of the parts missing. Igor Stravinsky took a stab at completing them in the 1950s, getting results that were more Stravinsky than Gesualdo, but not until now has the entire set been available, thanks to the years-long efforts of the conductor on this recording, James Wood. Wood is a Gesualdo specialist, and from all appearances he has done an incredibly painstaking job; there is not a note on the album that seems out of place. Moreover, the works themselves are different from what you may have heard of Gesualdo's late sacred style. Some of the Tenebrae Responsories seem like agonized acts of repentance by a composer troubled over past deeds (he killed his wife and her lover, and hung the bodies in front of his castle), but these works are more restrained. They are, however, equally innovative in terms of vertical sonority; often they go right up to a point where a madrigal would become hyperexpressive, but then end the phrase calmly. Sample the Ave santissima Maria, track 7; straight down from Josquin the theme of the adoration of Mary has been conveyed with limpid fifths and thirds, but Gesualdo's treatment is altogether different, a bit mysterious, and even sublime. Wood and the Vocalconsort Berlin do well to arrange the material by textual theme; they differentiate among them nicely. Even the "Despair and Weeping" section does not enter the world of the late madrigals; instead the music shows Gesualdo the master contrapuntist, applying the lessons of a lifetime. Working at Berlin's Teldex Studio, Harmonia Mundi's engineers have outdone themselves here. Highly recommended on all fronts.

Track Listing

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
1 7:56
2 2:47
3 2:36
4 2:58
5 2:26
6 2:12
7 3:33
8 2:39
9 2:27
10 3:04
11 3:02
12 3:19
13 2:29
14 2:46
15 2:12
16 2:04
17 3:53
18 2:44
19 3:13
20 2:33
21 3:17
22 4:59
blue highlight denotes track pick