An aristocrat who forged an idiosyncratic style of musical expression, Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, was one of those composers in music history who can truly be described as being ahead of his time: the creator of a harmonic language bold almost to the point of anarchy, whose every unpredictable interval was viewed with suspicion by the opponents of musical autonomy and guardians of liturgically based sacred music.
A friend of Torquato Tasso and founder of his own academy, to which many leading madrigalists of the 16th and early 17th centuries belonged, Gesualdo was a highly expressive composer and a virtuoso performer on the bass lute. Yet his chromatic progressions baffled his contemporaries and had to wait untilRead more the 19th-century era of High Romantic period to find artistic parallels.
Among his most important compositions are six books of five-part madrigals dating from between 1594 and 1611. The last two books in particular – this recording by the Hilliard Ensemble brings new performances of Book 5 – display his dissonant musical language with its extreme harmonic disruptions, striking tempo contrasts and a distinctly modern feel for drama.
The Hilliard Ensemble’s expressive singing, here also featuring soprano Monika Mauch and countertenor David Gould, conjures up that sound described by the great music historian Hans Redlich as growing out of “the antithesis between extravagant/debauched eroticism and self-castigating longing for death”.
R E V I E W S:
The story of composer Carlo Gesualdo (1560-1613) is one of the most lurid in music history. Don Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa and eventual king of pain, found out that his wife was having an affair with a younger nobleman; setting a trap, Gesualdo caught them in flagrante delicto and had the pair murdered on the spot (both stabbed and shot, even in the offending anatomy, according to reports). Yet revenge was not sweet for Gesualdo, who thereafter lived a withdrawn, cursed life (his second marriage unhappy, his sons dying young); a ritualistic masochistic, he employed teams of men to whip him, the flagellation supposedly yielding smiles of relief. Whether sacred or secular, Gesualdo’s vocal music depicts guilt and anguish through dissonances that feel shockingly modern. The Hilliard Ensemble’s 1991 Tenebrae album of the composer’s sublime sacred Responsoria remains a reference Gesualdo recording; the way the group voices the music’s plangent chromatic harmony is intoxicating. The chromaticism of his Fifth Book of Madrigals (1611) is allied to words drenched in love as a never-ending torment, the torture an addiction, with sex and death equated as release. Compared with Concerto Italiano’s radically different recordings of Gesualdo madrigals — done as earthy, even unhinged dramas — the Hilliard has a purer, cooler, more uniform sound, the British group’s diction less piquant, its manner more abstract. Yet the Hilliard sings these five-part pieces with rare beauty, the main quartet – countertenor David James, tenor Rogers Covey-Crump, tenor Steven Harrold and baritone Gordon Jones — augmented by soprano Monika Mauch and countertenor David Gould. The recording, made in the ECM venue of the monastery Propstei St. Gerold in alpine Austria, lends the music an otherworldly aura.
The Hilliard Ensemble has continued to sing Don Carlo Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responsories (Fanfare 14:6) ever since they recorded them so superbly that the set has gone unchallenged for two decades. Only lately have they investigated the madrigals, choosing now to tackle the complete Book 5, which along with Book 6 was published in 1611, the same year as the Tenebrae Responsories. All of these 1611 publications could have been assembled from music written over the previous years, and they probably were. But they can be seen as late Gesualdo, just as the Sacrae Cantiones of 1603 is closer to the first four books of madrigals. The ensemble has been filled out with a soprano and a second countertenor for the requirements of these 20 madrigals.
The only recent alternatives to this disc are Kassiopeia Quartet (33:4) and La Venexiana (29:2). Anthony Rooley (8:2) is still available, and Wolfgang Fromme never arrived for review (probably never issued here). Tempos are not an issue with Kassiopeia, for their timings are virtually the same as the Hilliards, the latter barely faster where a difference is noted. Rooley is faster in some, slower in others, so there is no pattern. La Venexiana is noticeably broader than the others in every song, and this is the clearest difference, the more wrenching Italian expressiveness contrasting with all of the northerners. But the Hilliard has always been noted for its tuning, an important element in making these wrenching harmonies sound as the composer heard them. In that respect, this is the most exquisite of all the performances. This music is made for the strengths of the Hilliard Ensemble. One may prefer the warmth of La Venexiana, but there is no denying the excellence of this new version.
Madrigals, Book 5by Carlo Gesualdo Performer:
Steven Harrold (Tenor),
Rogers Covey-Crump (Tenor),
Monika Mauch (Soprano),
David James (Countertenor),
David Gould (Countertenor),
Gordon Jones (Baritone)
Period: Renaissance Written: by 1611; Italy
Featured Sound Samples
Madrigals, Book 5: Gioite voi col canto
Dolcissima mia vita
Deh, coprite il bel seno
T'amo, mia vita
Average Customer Review: ( 3 Customer Reviews )
Gesualdo too far over the topJune 27, 2012By Robert Holt (Truro, MA)See All My Reviews"Years ago, I was in a small madrigal group, and much enjoyed singing many of Gesualdo's madrigals. I doubt that we did any from this book, probably because our leader, Edward Tatnall Canby, knew that they weren't musically up to his best level. I loved his sudden, wild, but emotionally convincing (if sometimes wrenching) key changes. In this group, however, they just don't work, not for me. The singing is pretty good, but I don't think the voice production without vibrato is necessary for, or even suited, to madrigals of this period. Restrained, non-operatic vibrato, yes; but not the way this group sang. All in all, then, I found the recording disappointing, one that I plan to play only very occasionally to make a point--either of how Gesualdo's nuttiness sometimes got out of control, or of how the no-vibrato style doesn't suit some kinds of music, great though it is in others (e.g., plainsong)."Report Abuse
Worth BuyingJune 27, 2012By Stephen R. (Brattleboro, VT)See All My Reviews"Excellent musicianship with a well blended ensemble. The recording is a must buy, if you are exploring Gesualdo's music and enjoy the Hilliard Ensemble as I do."Report Abuse
vocal magnificenceMay 26, 2012By Nina Spiegel (Lauderhill, FL)See All My Reviews"the samples of the madrigals are absolutely magnificent. The voices and intonation, the blending are impeccable."Report Abuse