Signum Records is proud to announce the release of the latest recording by The King’s Singers: Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday.

The Italian Prince, Carlos Gesualdo, is probably most famous for the obsessive double murder of his first wife along with her lover, but his music is not always accredited with the same sense of celebrity.

Gesualdo is known in traditional history books as an amateur composer. His music is characterised by wild gesticulation and abrupt starts and stops, particular to a composer who just didn’t know what he was doing. However, the 20th century has now uncovered our composer’s place in history as part of a larger movement of Neapolitan artists, and as perhaps the most forward-thinking, expressive and sensual composer of his time.

The King’s Singers were fascinated by the naked honesty that is heard within this 400 year old music. It is so startling that it keeps its freshness of surprise even on many repeated hearings. The music portrays a desperate and wretched, but also passionate and loving person who is set on composing "further out" than anyone else.

Gesualdo moved in the highest circles of Italy and was extremely wealthy. His decadent lifestyle allowed him to do and write exactly as he pleased, and at the tender age of 19 it brought him into close contact with one of the most attractive and admired women in Naples. Maria d’Avalos was twice widowed by the age of 25. Her marriage to Gesualdo was initially promising. However, Maria’s rich social life soon dominated the relationship and a profound and constant jealousy took possession of the young and highly sensitive composer. After four years of turmoil he hired professional murderers to assist him in killing wife and lover while they were in bed together. The violence and rage of the act is well-documented.

After the murder of Maria, Gesualdo suffered from severe and increasing feelings of guilt. Penitence never left him and he was moved to compose church music of a most black and self-reproachful nature. The programme on this CD represents part of the liturgy for the Matins Offices on the final three days of Holy Week, the Triduum Sacrum. Each of the Matins services is divided into three nocturns, each containing psalmody, three lessons and three responsaries.


What people are saying

"… searingly intense, with the singers’ clear, steady sound, beautifully judged changes of pace and dynamics …"

Daily Telegraph

  "The King’s Singers are always a treat to hear, … as with everything this inimitable, impeccably-tuned and balanced, stylish male sextet does, the chant is expertly accomplished, and the following multi-part responsories are sincerely felt and warmly resonant"

David Vernier,

    "… their reputation for after-dinner smoothness, the King’s Singers  …. all-male line-up  …. makes those grinding climaxes all the more tense and penetrating, and the attention given to word-painting is exemplary"

Ivan Hewitt, The Times

    "… a no holds barred, immaculately sung performance from the King’s Singers. Unmissable"

Classic FM Magazine

The King’s Singers

David Hurley
Robin Tyson
Paul Phoenix
Philip Lawson
Gabriel Crouch
Stephen Connolly

Release date:10th May 2004
Order code:SIGCD048
Barcode: 635212004821

Early Music Vol. XXXIII No. 2

Here is a challenge.  You have to devise a 70-minute recording of motets written by a single Renaissance composer, and to make it as engaging as possible for the listener.

…the most successful … is Carlo Gesualdo: Tenebrae responsories for Maundy Thursday, in which the King’s Singers take on nine of this composer’s most weird and wonderful motets.  Too much Gesualdo can easily overwhelm, and there are other recordings of the responsories that soon saturate the brain.  This one divides the motets into three groups of three, preceding each batch with a lectio from the Maundy Thursday rite, sung in plainchant by a solo voice.  Following the responsories comes the longest track on the disc: Gesualdo’s rarely heard alternatim setting of the Benedictus.  Harmonically it is the least startling item, and its calming effect after so much volatile polyphony is welcome.  A snippet of chant brings the recital to an end.  This quasi-liturgical structure is inspired, for it gives the impression that a ritual act has taken place, yet it throws the spotlight firmly on the Gesualdo motets – which are, after all, the reason for wanting to see the show.  It was wise not to overcrowd the disc; nine of these motets is plenty. 

As for the interpretation, they are excellent throughout.  The King’s Singers have made real performances out of Gesualdo’s fragmented polyphony, without ever sounding precious or over-directed; there is just enough spontaneity here to make the pieces seem natural – or rather, as natural as this wildly imagined narration of the Maundy Thursday story ever can be.  The teamwork of the ensemble is stunningly good, the tuning impeccable, and the dynamic range enormous; it ranges from quasi-whispers at one extreme to a deliberate coarseness of tone at the other.  The performances may be chamber-sized, but they take place in the large resonant space of Douai Abbey, and it must have been a recording engineer’s nightmare to capture them; in fact, the final outcome works very well.  Like everything else about this disc, it makes light of the fact that it cannot have been easy to achieve.

John Milsom

Cathedral Music 2004

As the membership of the King’s Singers has metamorphosed over the years, one is reminded of the man who had a broom which had had seven new heads and five new handles but was still as good as new. Their name has long been a byword for excellence and their reputation is further enhanced by this wonderful CD. Gesualdo was a child of his times and a victim of his personal circumstances. The counter reformation inspired Catholic artists and musicians to come to the aid of their embattled church. Add to this Gesualdo’s neurotic personality and guilt for the murder of his first wife, not to mention his own adulterous behavior during both marriages, and the ground is prepared for some of the most distinctive and intense music of any period. In the Tenebrae Responseries Gesulado gives his tortured genius full rein and the King’s Singers do him full justice in terms of balance, clarity of tone and diction and, and sheer interpretative intelligence. A must!

Alan Spedding

The Times, 8th May 2004

Tenebrae means "shadows", and this extraordinary music by that tormented genius Don Carlo Gesualdo does indeed dwell in the shadows.

When it rises to a passionate declamation, the effect isn’t a brightening but an intensification of the gloom. These pieces are part of matins, for the Holy Week, and tell the story of Christ in the Garden, his betrayal by Judas and his subsequent arrest. The CD cover shows a candelabra with a solitary lit candle, a reference to the old Catholic practice of extinguishing all the candles in the church as the liturgy unfolds, until only one is left burning.

The penitential tone of the liturgy must have appealed to Gesualdo, much of whose life was spent atoning for an early sin. In 1589, after only four years of marriage, he discovered his wife in flagrante and had them both killed. The trauma of this event added to his already overwrought sensibility, which found an outlet in composing music of amazing originality. These responsories are every bit as intense as his more well-known erotic madrigals, and they have the same masochistic delight in grinding dissonances.

Given their reputation for after-dinner smoothness, the King’s Singers hardly seem the ideal group for such fierce, dark music, but the all-male line-up does it proud. Using counter tenors instead of sopranos or trebles makes those grinding climaxes all the more tense and penetrating, and the attention given to word-painting is exemplary.

Ivan Hewitt

Daily Telegraph – 24th May 2004

The responsories for the Holy Week service of Tenebrae contain some of the most profound expressions of spiritual desolation to be found anywhere in the Catholic liturgy, and Gesualdo, with his extravagantly dissonant style and his conscience burdened with the guilt of a double murder, was well qualified to give them their ultimate musical incarnation. Such are the technical challenges of this music’s weird harmonic progressions and strangely contorted vocal lines that it is all too easy to let its eccentricity overshadow its expressiveness.

The wonderful thing about this King’s Singers’ recording is that, thanks to a combination of absolute technical assurance and minute attention to the details of Gesualdo’s word-setting, they show his Responsories to be not isolated curiosities but examples of the latest advances in the natural evolution of the polyphonic style. Far from diminishing the music’s extreme emotional impact, the effect is even more searingly intense, with the singers’ clear, steady sound, beautifully judged changes of pace and dynamics, and sense of the overall shape of each piece.


Elizabeth Roche

International Record Review

Carlo Gesualdo (c1561-1613), Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza in southern Italy, is a biographer’s dream. As a nobleman who composed and practised music he was unique enough, but he also murdered his wife and her lover in cold blood. Having escaped prosecution by the civil authorities he was punished instead by his own guilt, which led to religious mania and to music which was ever more neurotic and highly wrought. As a composer he certainly had one of the most individual voices of the sixteenth century, with an extremely dissonant and often exaggerated musical style which still continues to fascinate listeners today.

Gesualdo’s main preoccupation was the madrigal, but in the sacred arena his masterpiece was a collection of music for Holly Week published in 1611. These Responsories were written for the night service of Tenebrae which was one of the most dramatic of the old Catholic church calendar, during which 15 candles set on a great triangular candelabrum were gradually extinguished. Gesualdo provided three sets of Responsories – for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday – richly scored for a six-part male-voice ensemble.

The King’s Singers have chosen the nine Responsories for Maundy Thursday as the vehicle for their first recording of ‘serious’ repertory in years: an extraordinary choice. We simply don’t associate The King’s Singers with such dark and dangerously introspective music. Maybe that’s the point. But does it work? I think it does, and in quite a revealing way. I was immediately struck by the way that they take the music’s extremes very much in their stride: there’s no need to dramatize this element because it’s evident enough already. The King’s Singers don’t blunt the expressive force of the music; they just don’t fan the flames in the purple passages. If anything, they seem to pay greater attention to some of Gesualdo’s more orthodox but musically stronger ideas, and as a result the composer sounds rather better balanced. The music is also helped by the interleaving of some relevant plainchant which cleanses the palette between one group of pieces and the next.

Compared with the Hilliard Ensemble’s complete recording of all three sets of the Responsories, made in 1990, The King’s Singers sound smoother, more homogeneous, but less free: the underlying tactus is often so strict that you can easily beat time to the music. Although both recordings were made in the generous acoustic of Douai Abbey in Berkshire, the results are surprisingly different. The King’s Singers have been closely miked and must have been standing very close together: you can hear every entry clearly and chords are perfectly balanced from top to bottom. The Hilliard’s recording makes more of the natural resonance of the building, and each singer is allowed more space to express his individuality. If the Hilliard Ensemble excels on the linear plane then the King’s Singers thrill on the vertical. But it’s the Hilliard Ensemble which shows the greater understanding of the rhetorical power of the music: the King’s Singers sometimes seem blissfully unaware of the possibilities – repeating ideas without change, retaining a similar tactus in successive pieces, introducing ill-fitting crescendos and incongruosly emphasizing feminine endings. So take your pick: The King’s Singers portrait of a smooth, more evenly balanced Gesualdo, or the Hilliard’s gripping, more highly strung vision. Both have their place.

Simon Heighes

Classic FM Magazine – June 2004

Anyone listening to this disc without knowledge of the service of Tenebrae or of Gesualdo’s personal reasons for penitential expression in music will capture the dark spirit of the princely musicians’ work. Thanks to a no holds barred, immaculately sung performance from the King’s Singers, Gesualdo’s Maundy Thursday Responsories convey Gesualdo’s guilt about murdering his first wife. They also capture the mood of Tenebrae to perfection. Unmissable.


Andrew Stewart – 27th April 2004

The King’s Singers admit that is about time for Gesualdo to be recognized as one of the great composers in the history of music, and to be separated from his image of amateur composer.

The King’s Singers is, with no doubt, one of the most solvent and influential groups of the early music performance in the last thirty years. Nowadays, apart from its excellent performances it also offers master classes at different cities all over the world.

Goldberg Reviewer

Songs of Praise Magazine, June 2004

Among musicians with a past, few can touch Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa and one of the most inventive of late 16th-century composers. While Don Carlo’s impassioned music slipped into obscurity, the Italian nobleman attracted lasting notoriety after catching his wife in bed with her lover and killing both on the spot. Gesualdo exhibited their bodies on the steps of his palace, alongside the corpse of his wife’s daughter. The composer’s final volume of church music, Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday, offers an intensely moving example of Gesualdo in penitent voice, confessing his sins in works intended for private worship. Here, The King’s Singers cast off their image as arch-masters of clever shoo-bedoo-be-doo to give a haunting reading, complete with plainsong lessons and prayers., April 2004

In 1990, in the same Douai Abbey in Berkshire, England, the Hilliard Ensemble recorded (for ECM) all nine of the responsories for Maundy Thursday presented here by the King’s Singers–plus the other 18 responsories Gesualdo wrote for Good Friday and Holy Saturday. That two-disc set remains the most complete recording of this service music – and the best-performed – although because of the many-faceted musical/liturgical components required for these Tenebrae services, no two recorded programs are identical, either because of time constraints or just plain musical preferences (check out Philippe Herreweghe’s Holy Saturday configuration for Harmonia Mundi, or Andrew Parrott’s Good Friday arrangement for Sony). In order to fit the most important music for the Maundy Thursday service on one CD, the King’s Singers chose to modify the number and placement of the lessons, ultimately including only those sung to a designated plainchant melody. Each of the lessons is followed by a set of three responsories. The program closes with Gesualdo’s setting of the canticle Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel. If you’re thinking of Gesualdo the "extreme-harmonist", as we hear famously in his madrigals, you won’t notice so much of that style here – this church music is decidedly moody and relatively refined yet not completely immune from occasional, sudden, delightful surprises.

The King’s Singers are always a treat to hear, no matter the repertoire, although I can’t remember ever hearing the ensemble sing plainchant before. However, as with everything this inimitable, impeccably-tuned and balanced, stylish male sextet does, the chant is expertly accomplished, and the following multi-part responsories are sincerely felt and warmly resonant. Although I still prefer the smoother transitions and more subtle dynamics and phrasing of the Hilliards, this is an excellent choice for this repertoire, rendered in clear, vibrant sound (when it comes to vocal music, it’s always a plus when the name of engineer Mike Hatch appears in the list of recording credits). The liner notes are just detailed enough to define a proper context for composer and music and to provide a rationale for the programming. Complete texts and translations are included.

David Vernier

  1. Nocturn I – Lectio 1 – 4.40
  2. – In Monte Oliveti – 4.39
  3. – Tristis est anima mea – 4.43
  4. – Ecce vidimus eum – 7.26
  5. Nocturn II – Lectio 2 – 4.16
  6. – Amicus meus osculi – 3.53
  7. – Judas mercator pessimus – 2.36
  8. – Unus ex discipulis meis – 6.08
  9. Nocturn III – Lectio 3 – 3.56
  10. – Eram quasi agnus innocens – 5.11
  11. – Una hora non potuistis – 3.28
  12. – Seniores populi consilium – 6.23
  13. – Benedictus – 7.46
  14. – Christus factus est – 0.55