King's Singers

Gesualdo: Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday

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The King's Singers originally made their reputation in the 1960s on the strength of their interpretations of Renaissance music. Given their wide popularity over the years, and their contractual obligations to major companies such as EMI and RCA, the King's Singers have been required to branch out into areas, such as the music of the Beatles and Gilbert & Sullivan, and to other lightweight, popular fare. Although they always did a good job in these styles, it was easy to see that the King's Singers were at least a little out of their element. In the meantime, the rest of the early music world went by, and the few opportunities where the King's Singers were able to ply their trade as Renaissance specialists went little noticed. The early music "boom" ended long ago, as has the King's Singers contract with RCA, but the King's Singers have returned on the small, relatively new Signum label from the U.K., and for this occasion they have elected to record some of the most difficult Renaissance vocal music of all -- the Responsories of famously unhinged Prince of Venosa, Don Carlo Gesualdo.

From this large 1611 publication the King's Singers select the Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday. It is not an insult to this repertoire to say that it is great music when one is depressed; such is Gesualdo's mastery of emotional fluctuations, and the King's Singers perfectly capture the ebb and flow of Gesualdo's ever-changing moods. The King's Singers' performance of Gesualdo's little-known setting of Tristis est anima mea is absolutely extraordinary -- it dissolves seamlessly through Gesualdo's complex chromatic harmony without any sign of the Singers losing the central locus of pitch, a bear that has brought down the loftiest of choral groups in this music. Appropriate chant incipits are included, and Signum's recording, made in Douai Abbey in Berkshire, is just right -- not too far away and not too dry with the perspective on the singing up front; you can hear them breathe.

The King's Singers' Gesualdo: Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday is simply superb and belongs in any well-rounded collection of Renaissance music. Welcome back, fellas!

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