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Carlo GESUALDO da Venosa (1566 - 1613): "Sesto Libro di Madrigali"

La Compagnia del Madrigale
Dir: Giuseppe Maletto

rec: June & July 2012, Roletto, Chiesa della BV Maria del Monte Carmelito al Colletto
Glossa - GCD 922801 (© 2013) (77'55")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Al mio gioir il ciel sì fa sereno; Alme d'amor rubelle; Ancide sol la morte; Ancor che per amarti; Ardita zanzaretta; Ardo per te, mio bene; Beltà, poi che t'assenti; Candido e verde fiore; Chiaro risplender suole; Deh, come invan sospiro; Già piansi nel dolore; Io parto, e non più dissi; Io pur respiro in così gran dolore; Mille volte il dì moro; Moro, lasso, al mio duolo; O dolce mio tesoro; Quando ridente e bella; Quel 'no' crudel; Resta di darmi noia; Se la mia morte brami; Tu piangi, o Filli mia; Tu segui, o bella Clori; Volan quasi farfalle

Rossana Bertini, Francesca Cassinari, Laura Fabris, soprano; Elena Carzaniga, contralto; Raffaele Giordani, Giuseppe Maletto, tenor; Marco Scavazza, baritone; Daniele Carnovich, bass

The late madrigals by Carlo Gesualdo belong to the pinnacle of the madrigal repertoire of the decades around 1600. These pieces are highly complicated, in particular because of the frequent and strong dissonances and the sudden changes of emotion. These madrigals are beyond the capabilities of a mainstream vocal ensemble. This is repertoire for a specialized ensemble of highly-skilled singers.

These madrigals have also contributed to the picture of their composer. He is often considered a maverick and even a madman, probably because he killed his wife and her lover. It is considered not a coincidence that the word "death" and everything that is connected to it appears so frequently in the latest two books of madrigals. It is easily overlooked that the connection between death and (unhappy) love was quite fashionable at his time, and that the sixth book also includes some light-hearted pieces, especially in the second half. In his liner-notes Marco Bizzarini tries to put Gesualdo's life and work into a more historical perspective.

Interestingly, he states that modern conceptions of Gesualdo are not founded on historical sources. He refers to several of his contemporaries who gave their opinion on his madrigals, and there is no hint that they considered him a madman. Two aspects return in most assessments of his output: his mastery of counterpoint and the expressive character of his madrigals. A writer praised his madrigals for "their great refinement and their exquisite counterpoint". That doesn't mean that their particular character was lost on his contemporaries. Bizzarini refers to two testimonies which characterized them as "dissonant" and "difficult".

There are some factors which could probably explain the particular character of Gesualdo's madrigals. He was indeed a kind of maverick in the sense that he, as a member of the aristocracy, was not supposed to compose professionally. He wrote his madrigals for himself and his circle. When the sixth book was printed, the name of the composer was not on the frontispiece. It was only the dedication which revealed that Gesualdo had written the madrigals. Bizzarini suggests that the texts which he set to music were probably from his own pen, which could explain the close connection between text and music. They are all anonymous, though, and it is very likely that this has also to do with his social status. A contemporary suggested that Gesualdo wanted to be different from some of his colleagues, who liked to compose light and pleasant madrigals, whereas Gesualdo had more affinity with Luzzasco Luzzaschi.

There could be another factor. Gesualdo's last madrigals date from the time of the emergence of the stile nuovo, propagated by Giulio Caccini and others. The text should be in the centre and the music should be its servant. To that end the advocates of the new style preferred to compose pieces for solo voice and basso continuo. Gesualdo never felt drawn to the new fashion; he didn't write a single piece with a basso continuo part. It could well be that with his madrigals he tried to prove that it was perfectly possible to achieve a maximum of text expression in the stile antico and that a polyphonic madrigal wasn't inferior to monody. If that was indeed the point he wanted to make, he did so pretty convincingly as the two latest books of madrigals prove.

The sixth book includes many examples of the way Gesualdo uses harmony for expressive purposes. That not only concerns dissonants, even though these are the most notable aspects of these pieces, but also consonants. The second madrigal, Beltà, poi che t'assenti, includes some of the strongest dissonants, on the words "la doglia del morire" (the pain of death). In the fourth madrigal, Resta di darmo noia, Gesualdo uses the sweetest consonants on the closing word, "felice" (happy). Many madrigals are about contrasting emotions, such as Moro, lasso, al mio duolo, between the second and third lines: "the person who can give me life, alas, kills me and does not want to give me aid". These contrasts can appear even within a single line, such as "I was dead; I am alive" (Io parto, e non più dissi). It is not just in the gloomy pieces where we find superior examples of Gesualdo's skills in illustrating a text. The more light-hearted pieces, such as Già pansi nel dolore, are no less impressive.

This is music which requires technical perfection, from individual singers as well as from the ensemble. Not long ago I reviewed the first disc of La Compagnia del Madrigale, "Orlando Furioso" which greatly impressed me. This disc isn't any different: it is an example of superb madrigal singing. The individual voices produce a beautiful sound, and their qualities can be admired in the many short episodes for reduced forces. Their voices also perfectly blend and intonation is impeccable. These are absolute prerequisites in madrigals in which harmony is such a crucial element. Another important feature of these performances is the differentiated treatment of dynamics which is balanced and never exaggerated. As I wrote Gesualdo probably wanted to prove that the text can be given just as much attention in a polyphonic composition as in a solo piece. The performance of this ensemble proves him right: the delivery is outstanding, and the nuances within the text come off perfectly.

I'm eagerly awaiting this ensemble's next disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

La Compagnia del Madrigale

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