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Carlo GESUALDO da Venosa (1566 - 1613): Sacrae Cantiones

[I] "Sacrae Cantiones"
The Marian Consort
Dir: Rory McCleery
rec: Jan 6 - 8, 2016, Oxford, Chapel of Merton College
Delphian Records - DCD34176 (© 2016) (60'55")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ave, dulcissima Maria; Ave regina coelorum; Deus, refugium et virtus; Dignare me laudare te; Domine, ne despicias deprecationem meam; Exaudi, Deus, deprecationem meam; Hei mihi, Domine; Illumina faciem tuam; Laboravi in gemitu meo; Maria, mater gratiae; O crux benedicta; O vos omnes; Peccantem me quotidie; Precibus et meritis; Reminiscere miserationum tuarum; Sancti Spiritus, Domine; Tribularer si nescirem; Tribulationem et dolorem; Venit lumen tuum

Emma Walshe, soprano; Esther Brazil, mezzo-soprano; Rory McCleery, alto; Ashley Turnell, Guy Cutting, tenor; Christopher Borrett, bass

[II] "Sacrae Cantiones"
La Main Harmonique
Dir: Frédéric Bétous
rec: Aug & Sept 2014, Marsolan (F), Église Notre-Dame-du-Rosaire
Ligia - Lidi 0202295-15 (© 2015) (64'45")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Carlo GESUALDO da Venosa: Ad te levavi; Adoramus te Christe; Ardens est cor meum; Assumpta est Maria; Ave sanctissima Maria; Da pacem Domine Discedite a me omnes; Franciscus humilis et pauper; Gaudeamus omnes; Illumina nos; Ne derelinquas me; O anima sanctissima; O beata Mater; O oriens; O sacrum convivium; Sana me Domine; Veni Creator Spiritus; Veni sponsa Christi; Verba mea; Virgo benedicta; Caroline MARÇOT (*1974): Maa

Nadia Lavoyer, Judith Derouin, Cyprile Meyer, soprano; Yann Rolland, Frédéric Bétous, alto; Davy Cornillot, David Lefort, tenor; Romain Bockler, baritone; Marc Busnel, bass; Nanja Breedijk, harpa

During the 15th and especially the 16th century large amount of sacred music were written, such as masses, hymns, canticles, motets - to mention only a few. Such compositions were expected from composers who were in the service of a church or a court. The performance of madrigals was one of the main occupations of aristocrats, who often employed a composer and professional singers. This state of affairs means that composers were not really free in what they composed. Sacred music was intended for performance during the liturgy, which was strongly regulated. For the composition of madrigals composers mostly turned to the poems of the famous authors of their time. This explains why some texts are known in many different settings.

Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa was in many ways different from his peers - who, formally speaking, were not really his peers. He bore the title Prince of Venosa, which indicates that he was an aristocrat himself. Because of that he was never in the service of someone - he rather was an employer himself. This gave him complete freedom to choose texts of his own liking and to set them in his very own way. He has become best known for his six books of madrigals. Especially in the later books he often chose texts which were different from those set by other composers. One of the main criteria was whether they gave him the opportunity for an optimal text expression. His musical idiom is not completely unique - as I have pointed out in a review of recordings of his madrigals - but in several respects he was certainly one of a kind.

In the last fifteen years of his life Gesualdo composed quite some sacred music. This part of his oeuvre is relatively little-known. The Responsoria et alia ad Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae spectantia, printed in 1611, are available in various recordings. In contrast recordings of the two collections of Sacrae Cantiones, which came from the press in 1603, are rather rare. In the case of the second book that is understandable: two of the part books are missing (the printing of scores was not common at the time). But even the first book receives fairly little attention. Pieces from this collection are included in concert programmes and on disc, but only a few complete recordings are available.

It has often been suggested that the two last books of madrigals, mostly of a rather gloomy nature and loaded with chromaticism and dissonants, reflect the composer's state of mind in the last stages of his life. However, that is hard to prove, as we don't know exactly when he composed them. These books could well be compilations of what he had written over a longer period. That seems different in the case of the sacred music. There is no reason to assume that Gesualdo was not a true believer. Almost everyone in his time was. There is reason, though, to believe that the events in his life which have given him the reputation of being mentally unstable, have increased his religious fervour. The collections of Cantiones Sacrae have two major subjects: penitence and Marian devotion. In the doctrine of the Catholic Church these two aspects are closely connected as the Virgin Mary, "mother of grace and mercy" (Maria, Mater gratiae), is considered the mediary between man and God. This was further emphasized by the Counter Reformation. The same subjects were also depicted on the altarpiece that Gesualdo placed in his palace in that same year 1603. Gesualdo's focus on his faith could well have been stimulated by the physical and psychological illnesses he suffered in his late years.

In his sacred works he is more moderate in regard to harmonic experiments. Whereas in the fifth and sixth books of madrigals almost any piece includes passages with chromaticism and dissonants, those are far less frequent in his motets. This can partly be explained by the choice of texts. Many of them were part of the liturgy, such as Ave Regina caelorum, Veni creator spiritus or O sacrum convivium. However, in the liturgy pieces of a penitential character were also frequently performed; many texts gave plenty opportunity to use the kind of idiom which is a feature of Gesualdo's madrigals. Both books include several pieces where we find the typical harmonic experiments which we know from his madrigals. Examples are Peccantem me quotidie and Tribulationem et dolorem from the first book and O oriens and Discedite a me omnes from the second book.

In the latter case we have to adopt some caution, though. The fact that these motets have come down to us incomplete, means that they can only be performed if the missing parts are reconstructed. If we note dissonants and chromaticism we don't know whether these are the result of what Gesualdo has written down or of the reconstruction. The performance of La Main Harmonique is based on a new reconstruction by Marc Busnel, also one of the basses of the ensemble. In 2013 Harmonia mundi released a recording of the second book by the Vocalconsort Berlin, directed by James Wood, who had made his own reconstruction. It goes beyond the parameters of a review like this to compare their efforts piece by piece. To do that one also needs the respective scores. Obviously no reconstruction can claim to represent the 'truth'. We will just never know what exactly Gesualdo had in mind, until the missing parts are found. To my ears both reconstructions do justice to the character of Gesualdo's idiom, both in his madrigals and in his two complete collections of sacred music.

An interesting question is how these pieces should be performed. Many texts may have been part of the liturgy in those days, that doesn't mean they were meant for liturgical performance. Gesualdo's motets were written for performance by his own chapel, which suggests a rather intimate atmosphere. It seems that a performance in the same vein as the madrigals is most appropriate. That is the way the motets are performed by the Marian Consort. In my reviews of some of their previous recordings I criticised the clearly audible vibrato in several of the voices, which damaged the ensemble. They are not completely free of that here as well, but overall this is by far the best recording I have heard of them. I rate this recording higher that that of Odhecaton which opted for a participation of instruments playing colla voce. That seems at odds with the character of the performances in Gesualdo's chapel. In the case of the second book there is little to choose between the Vocalconsort Berlin and La Main Harmonique. The main difference seems that James Wood sometimes performed the motets with more than one voice per part. In the light of what we know about the performing circumstances a line-up of one voice per part seems preferable. La Main Harmonique delivers excellent performances, but probably a bit too much from an ecclesiastical angle. I would have preferred a more intimate acoustic.

In between the motets by Gesualdo La Main Harmonique sings Ma, a cycle of seven motets by the contemporary composer Caroline Marçot. It includes several texts which were also set by Gesualdo or rather some words from them, such as Da pacem and Ardens cor. In these pieces the singers are supported by Nanja Breedijk on the harp. Idiomatically they are in a different idiom, and not every lover of early music will probably appreciate them. The CD player allows them to skip those tracks. They take in total a little less than 11 minutes. If you would like to add these little-known motets by Gesualdo to your collection, the inclusion of those pieces should not prevent you from doing so.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

La Main Harmonique
The Marian Consort

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