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Carlo GESUALDO da Venosa (c1561 - 1613): Motets and madrigals

[I] "Cantiones Sacrae Liber secundus"
Vocalconsort Berlin
Dir: James Wood
rec: August 2011, Berlin, Teldex Studio
Harmonia mundi - HMC 902123 (© 2013) (69'22")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Ad te levavi [1]; Adoramus te Christe [1]; Ardens est cor meumabfghi [1]; Assumpta est Maria [1]; Ave sanctissima Maria [1]; Benedictus [2]; Da pacem Domine [1]; Discedite a me omnesacfghi [1]; Franciscus humilis et pauperadeghi [1]; Gaudeamus omnes [1]; Illumina nos [1]; Miserere [2]; Ne derelinquas me [1]; O anima sanctissima [1]; O beata Mater [1]; O oriensacfghi [1]; O sacrum convivium [1]; Sana me Domine [1]; Veni Creator Spiritusadeghi [1]; Veni sponsa Christiadeghi [1]; Verba mea [1]; Virgo benedicta [1]

Sources: [1] Sacrarum cantionum liber primus, 1603 [Liber secundus]*; [2] Responsoria et alia ad Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae spectantia, 1611
* Both volumes of Sacrae Cantiones were originally entitled Liber Primus, but since there is no evidence of any further book, there has been a tendency to refer to this collection as Liber Secundus (booklet).

Cécile Kempenaers, soprano (soloa; Inga Schneider (solob), Anne-Kristin Zschunke (soloc), Ruth Gibbins, mezzo-soprano; Kaspar Kröner (solod), Edzard Burchards (soloe), alto; Dan Martin (solof), Florian Schmitt, tenorino; Stephan Gähler (solog), Markus Schuck, Johannes Klügling (soloh), tenor; Matthias Jahrmärker, Kai-Uwe Fahnert, Clemens Heidrich, baritone; Matthias Lutze (soloi), Thomas Heiß, bass

[II] "Quinto Libro di Madrigali"
The Hilliard Ensemble
rec: Nov 2009, St. Gerold (Vorarlberg), Propstei St. Gerold
ECM Records - ECM 2175 (© 2012) (55'16")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

Asciugate i begli occhi; Correte, amanti, a prova; Deh, coprite il bel seno; Dolcissima mia vita; Felicissimo sonno; Gioite voi col canto; Itene, o miei sospiri; Languisce al fin; Mercè grido piangendo; O dolorosa gioia; O tenebroso giorno; O voi, troppo felici; Occhi del mio cor vita; Poichè l'avida sete (1. Parte) - Ma tu, cagion (2. Parte); Qual fora, donna; Se tu fuggi, io non resto; Se vi duol il mio duolo; S'io non miro non moro; T'amo, mia vita; Tu m'uccidi, o crudele

Source: Madrigali a cinque voci, libro quinto, 1611

Monika Mauch, soprano; David James, David Gould, alto; Rogers Covey-Crump, Steven Harrold, tenor; Gordon Jones, baritone

The name of Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa is first and foremost associated with the genre of the madrigal. His contributions to this genre are among the most remarkable, and especially the fifth and sixth book never cease to fascinate musicologists, performers and audiences. They find it hard to get a grip on his idiom and his personality. Gesualdo's sacred music receives less attention, although his Responsoria for Holy Week are performed now and then and have been recorded several times.

Gesualdo published two books of Cantiones Sacrae in 1603. The first has been performed and recorded, but the second has been considered as improbable to perform because two of the parts are missing. In 2008 the composer and conductor James Wood decided to try to reconstruct the missing parts. It took him three years, from 2008 to 2011, to perform this demanding job. He analysed the surviving parts and the two collections of sacred music. "The scope and extent of this analysis constantly grew and widened during my work on the reconstruction, as I discovered more and more consistent stylistic aspects in the music. These include techniques of text-treatment and setting, counterpoint, style of imitation, melodic and harmonic tendencies and rhythmic style, informed by conventions and rules in sixteenth-century Italian vocal music about the use of clefs and their associated voice-ranges." During the process Wood became impressed by Gesualdo's technique which he considers as "more consistent, sophisticated, rigorous and disciplined than that of many of his contemporaries (...)".

The collection includes 20 motets for six and seven voices which are divided here into four categories: "Prayers for Salvation", "Despair and Weeping", "Peace and Hope" and "Praise and Thanks". Obviously the character of these motets is different from that of the madrigals, but even so Gesualdo's idiom is clearly recognizable. The dissonants are less frequent, but not absent, for instance in O sacrum convivium and Ardens est cor meum ("lachrymans quaero" - weeping I seek [him]). Gesualdo uses chromaticism on "fletus mei" (my weeping) in Discedite a me omnes. Even the motets ranked under the title "Praise and Thanks" are seldom really joyful. There seems always some kind of gloominess in his oeuvre whatever the text is about. The probably most carefree motet is Assumpta est Maria which is dominated by sweet consonants.

After finishing his reconstruction Woods recorded the collection with the Vocalconsort Berlin, which comprises 16 singers. Six motets are performed with solo voices. In his liner-notes Woods doesn't give any reasons for that. Independent of the number of singers, these performances are quite impressive. Woods and his singers have caught the character of Gesualdo's motets very well. As the composer uses harmony for expressive reasons here just as in his madrigals the perfect intonation of the ensemble is an essential element in the performance. The delivery is also very good. The motets are embraced by two pieces from the Responsoria: Miserere and Benedictus, both alternatim compositions.

This disc shows that the reconstructions of the second book of Cantiones Sacrae were well worth the effort. As a result the repertoire of polyphonic music of the late renaissance has been extended considerably. It is to be hoped that they will be published and made available to choirs and vocal ensembles.

One of the ensembles which have recorded Gesualdo's Responsoria is the Hilliard Ensemble (ECM Records, 1991). Over the years they regularly have sung his madrigals as well. They were mostly performed as part of programmes with Italian madrigals of the renaissance. Eventually they thought the time had come to record one book complete, and they chose the fifth. It is one of those books in which Gesualdo's style has become more extreme, and is strongly different from everything that is written in his time.

Usually the ensemble comprises only male voices, from alto to bass. For this recording they are joined by the German soprano Monika Mauch, a singer with a very fine voice which is perfectly suited for this repertoire. Unfortunately there is no real ensemble here. Ms Mauch sings very well, but is too dominant, and the lower voices have too little presence. For many listeners a whole disc with this kind of madrigals, which have little more to offer than trouble and affliction, may be too much of a good thing anyway. The Hilliard Ensemble doesn't make listening easier as there is not enough differentiation between the madrigals. There is little variety in colour from the singers. The interpretation is too one-dimensional; there also should have been more dynamic shading. The interpretation of the sixth book - which is comparable in its content with the fifth - by La Compagnia del Madrigale is much more differentiated and as a result makes a more lasting impression.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

The Hilliard Ensemble
Vocalconsort Berlin

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