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GRAMOPHONE (02 /2014)
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Reviewer: Fabrice Fitch

Given the impact of the first complete recording of Gesualdo’s Responsories by the Hilliard Ensemble for ECM over 20 years ago, it’s surprising that they’ve not more often been attempted as a set; but the quatercentenary of the composer’s death is as good an opportunity as any. To the music’s overt drama Philippe Herreweghe responds with a typically more measured, controlled performance, so one may say that the performance is cooler than the music. (In this respect as in others, the Collegium Vocale Gent offer a decided alternative to the Hilliards.) Dynamic contrasts are more often achieved by the full choir than in reduced sections, and the composer’s trademark chromaticisms are rather played down. The quality of understatement found in this ensemble’s recent Victoria Requiem (11/12) is here also, albeit to a degree: the ‘cut glass’ quality I noted there is rougher-edged, for example where the transitions between slow and fast-moving passages are more marked and harder to negotiate. That said, other moments of impressive co-ordination (as at the word ‘toluntur’ in ‘Ecce quomodo moritur iustus’) have the air of a parade-ground manoeuvre.

Perhaps the one quality present in both sets is monumentality, albeit achieved through different means: ECM’s close microphone position for the Hilliards imparts real volume and presence, and their phenomenal blend does the rest. A more distant recorded image captures the Collegium’s massed sound, and the sense of distance objectivises the ensemble so that one is drawn to the settings’ formal qualities, the more so as the repetitions impart a sense of ritual, whereas with the Hilliards, one is struck by their rhetorical effect. Individual details tend to be more striking as a result, though Herreweghe can bring them out too when he chooses (as with ‘Velum templi scissum est’). In short, both recordings will have their admirers; and if my preference goes to the Hilliards, it should be said that the set is one of their most impressive achievements. My only criticism of this new set is that insufficient time elapses between the tracks, so that the silence between and within Responds is not sufficiently differentiated.

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