Tallis Scholars showcasing work of 'extreme' composer Gesualdo
Sort of, says Peter Phillips, founder and director of the Tallis Scholars, the celebrated a cappella vocal ensemble specializing in Renaissance music.
Phillips isn’t quite as ready as the University Musical Society, which presents the group Thursday at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in its “Pure Michigan Renegade” series, to brand Gesualdo—the focus of Thursday’s program—as such.
“Well, I think there are better words,” Phillips cautioned by phone from England, adding that for him, “renegade” suggests someone who is politically a revolutionary.
Well, Gesualdo (1566-1613) wasn’t necessarily that, though he was a murderer—he dispatched his wife and her lover when he caught them in flagrante delicto—whose nobility protected him from prosecution for his spectacular crimes.But Phillips is happy to call Gesualdo’s expressive secular and sacred music, like the 1611 “Tenebrae Responsories for Holy Saturday,” the centerpiece of Thursday’s bill, as outside the norm, if not outside the law.
“Within quite a conservative framework, which is to say, he didn’t use instruments and kept to unaccompanied voices, he used a musical language which is kind of violent, really,” Phillips said. “All the ingredients, the chromaticism, the rhythms, he jolted them up and made them more extreme. That really puts him in a category all by himself when it comes to musical language. It’s very extreme.”
And “unusually difficult to perform,” he added.
“It’s like Schoenberg and those people in the early days of the 12-tone movement, which is almost 100 years ago now. Gesualdo was kind of like that in his time, and he posed a challenge to performers who hadn’t encountered that before.”
The challenge extends to performers today, he is quick to add: “There is nothing you can do to make it easier.
“You’ve got to know the music really well. Nothing is obvious on the page. You can’t sing him like anybody else that went before. If you can sing 20th century 12-tone music, you can sing Gesualdo.”
That would be cold comfort to many a singer, but not to the 12-voices of the Tallis Scholars, a group Phillips likens to an instrument, one he has honed for 40 years now. And Gesualdo is a gateway for listeners to attend to the music of other Renaissance and early Baroque composers—from Lassus to Monteverdi—who also were concerted in attempts to explore chromaticism and unusual rhythms. “Nobody,” he warns, though, “keeps company with Gesualdo. He’s more extreme than any of them.”