This is the original full-price release of Gesualdo: Sabbato Sancto on Harmonia Mundi, which is no longer available as such, yet it has been reissued in Harmonia's musique d'abord series. One might wonder how Philippe Herreweghe and the Ensemble Vocal Européen can fit Don Carlo Gesualdo's cycle of Responsories for the office of Tenebrae of Holy Saturday, four of his sacred motets, and a contemporary setting of the Requiem by Italian composer Sandro Gorli all onto one disc. There is no simple answer, but the Gorli Requiem is only 14 minutes in length, and though his overall performance time averages out to about the norm for a performance of the Sabbato Sancto, certain sections within responses are taken up to madrigal tempo. Even though it doesn't show in the timing, Herreweghe is noticeably faster overall than anyone else in these works. Herreweghe presents his Gesualdo with a smooth sheen, Gesualdo's pungent dissonances softened and submerged into the texture. The singing by the Ensemble Vocal Européen is very fine, clear, and full-throated, although at one point there is a slight discord between the intonation of one track and another. Gesualdo's Motets fare a bit better than the Responses merely through the benefit of being sung more slowly and carefully. Gorli's Requiem is a spooky and interesting piece in which disconnected voices glide and float through negative space; one wonders what it has to do with Gesualdo, but its appearance on disc performed by a world-class chorus is certainly welcome.
Herreweghe does so many things so well that it is hard to imagine him tripping up on anything. Yet the essential style of Gesualdo seems to elude him -- this is how Gesualdo's music might sound if you considered that there is nothing essentially unusual about his creative approach within the context of the late sixteenth century Italian madrigal. The effect is that of Gesualdo without blood, the mere corpse of his music drained of all color, whereas the Gorli Requiem gets an expressive and deeply felt performance, providing the impression that in this case the cart may have gone before the horse. Gesualdo was a composer so deeply worried about posterity that he left a stipend for the nuns at the local church to say a prayer for his soul every day for eternity. The money ran out in about 1620, so they stopped praying. Similarly, Herreweghe's performance of Gesualdo's Tenebrae Responsories seems at least emotionally bankrupt.