Friday, April 4, 2014

Hortus Musicus (Austria) performs Gesualdo's "Sabbato Sancto" Responsories

Born in Naples, Don Carlo Gesualdo (1560-1613), Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza, was a composer and personality of untamed contrasts. A poet and a statesman, he murdered his wife and her lover - the Duke of Andria - later imprisoning two of his own concubines, tried and convicted of witchcraft, in his castle. The Vatican issued the composer “although divinely talented and of regal lineage” with a warning, to which he responded “I am both Nero and as the Pontius Pilate, untouchable in my actions”. Add to this the fact that he was into wild bouts of self-flagellation, spending his final days in a state of melancholia bordering on insanity. Towards the end of his life, Gesualdo began his ‘religious period’, his music obsessed with themes of guilt, pity and death. Gesualdo's “Responsoria for Holy Week”, as well as two massive volumes of madrigals, appeared in 1611. Interestingly enough, he was a mediocre musician, with no singing voice and no instrumental mastery, yet his compositional style was uncompromisingly experimental and sophisticated, wildly overstepping the boundaries of convention but boasting unique beauty. After his death, Gesualdo's vocal compositions faded into obscurity, with public interest remaining only in the gruesome details of his notorious deeds. However, the 1950s saw renewed interest in Gesualdo’s music on the part of musicologists. In 1960, Igor Stravinsky wrote a piece called “Momentum pro Gesualdo”, there are some 11 operatic works on the subject of Gesualdo’s life and, in 1995, Werner Herzog produced a fantastical pseudo-documentary called “Death for Five Voices”.

Prior to the performance of Gesualdo’s “Sabbato Sancto” by the Austrian vocal group Hortus Musicus on March 29th 2014 at the Austrian Hospice of the Holy Family, which is situated on the Via Dolorosa of Jerusalem’s Old City, Rector Markus Stephan Bugnyar made mention of the composer’s extreme character traits as well as the work’s relevance to Easter and Lent. “Sabbato Sancto” is the last work of the three “Responsoria” works sung on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Considered the composer’s masterpiece, its texts are taken from the Old- and New Testaments, focusing on the death of Christ and the destruction of Jerusalem.

In Tenebrae (Latin: shadows, darkness) services, held on the evening - or early morning of the last three days of Holy Week, the church’s candles are extinguished one by one until the congregation remains there in darkness. Taking place in the Austrian Hospice chapel, Hortus Musicus’ rendition of the “Sabbato Sancto” Responsoria followed this tradition. Its members - soprano Christa Mäurer, mezzo-soprano Waltraud Russegger, tenor Michael Nowak, bass Dietmar Pickl and the group’s musical director, baritone Günter Mattitsch – were joined by tenorino Michael Gerzabek to form a six-voiced ensemble. With Gesualdo's music generally fiendishly difficult to perform, the singers gave superb, articulate expression to the work’s emotional intensity, its subtlety of color and daring musical language. Each of the six voices offered both distinctive vocal colors and depth of expression of the verbal text, their integrative timbre vivid, stable, penetrating and gripping. Mattitsch and his singers’ reading of the musical- and verbal text also referred to the work’s multi-faceted content – from the sorrow of the darkness of the world and the solemnity of Easter to Gesualdo’s blatantly autobiographical references to torment, anguish, self-pity, humility and betrayal, all projected via the composer’s unorthodox, idiosyncratic, chromatic harmonic- and rhythmic language, a language in which surprise and dissonance play a focal part. Yet, free of delirium, superficial extravagance and singing displaying technical acrobatics, Hortus Musicus’ unmannered performance allowed the audience to be part of the somber, contemplative text that gradually lightens, shown through a fascinating interplay of voices, luxuriant vocal lines, finely chiseled shaping of phrases and timbral luminosity. A rare musical experience, this was surely one of the highlights of the current concert season.

The Austrian ensemble Hortus Musicus was founded in 1972, originally a vocal- and instrumental ensemble focusing on Gothic- and Burgundian music. As of 1990, the ensemble has consisted of five singers, its repertoire consisting of music of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance as well as contemporary music. Travelling and recording widely, Hortus Musicus is involved in the running of concert series, one of its goals being to make contemporary music accessible to the general public.

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