musica Dei donum

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Carlo GESUALDO da Venosa (1566 - 1613): Madrigals

[I] "Terzo Libro di Madrigali"
La Compagnia del Madrigale
rec: Sept 29 - 30, Oct 1 - 4 & Nov 6, 2015, Roletto, Chiesa della Beata Vergine al Colletto
Glossa - GCD 922806 (© 2016) (63'31")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Alfonso FONTANELLI (1557-1622): Colei che già si bella a 5 [7]; Carlo GESUALDO da Venosa [5]: Ahi, disperata vita; Ahi, dispietata e cruda; Ancidetemi pur, grievi martiri; Crudelissima doglia; Deh, se già fu crudele; Del bel de' bei vostri occhi; Dolce spirto d'amore; Dolcissimo sospiro; Donna, se m'ancidete; Languisco e moro, ahi, cruda; Meraviglia d'Amore; Non t'amo, o voce ingrata; Se piange, ohimè, la donna; Se vi miro pietosa; Sospirava il mio core; Veggio, sì, dal mio sole; Voi volete ch'io mora; Luzzasco LUZZASCHI (1545-1607): Dolorosi martir a 5 [4]; Scipione STELLA (c1558-1622): Sento dentr'al cor mio a 4 [1]

Rossana Bertini, Francesca Cassinari, soprano; Elena Carzaniga, contralto; Giuseppe Maletto, Raffaele Giordani, tenor; Daniele Carnovich, bass
with: Laura Fabris, soprano; Annalisa Mazzoni, contralto

[II] "O dolce mio tesoro - Madrigali a cinque voci, Libro sesto (1611)"
Collegium Vocale Gent
Dir: Philippe Herreweghe
rec: August 1 - 3, 2015, Ascanio, Chiesa San Francesca
PHI - LPH 024 (© 2016) (67'35")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/N; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

[9] Al mio gioir il ciel si fa sereno; Alme d'amor rubelle; Ancide sol la morte; Ancor che per amarti io mi consumi; 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, che la mia speme ancise; Resta di darmi noia; Se la mia morte brami; Tu piangi, o Filli mia; Tu segui, o bella Clori, un fuggitivo core; Volan quasi farfalle ai vostri almi splendori

Hana Blaziková, Barbora Kabatková, soprano; Marnix De Cat, alto; Thomas Hobbs, David Munderloh, tenor; Peter Kooij, bass; Thomas Dunford, lute

[III] "Dolcissimo Veleno"
La Dolce Maniera
Dir: Luigi Gaggero
rec: Oct 2014, Égligny (F), Chapelle Notre-Dame-du-Chêne
Stradivarius - Str 37010 (© 2014) (54'25")
Liner-notes: E/I; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

All'apparir di quelle luci ardenti [3]; Ardita zanzaretta [9]; Beltà, poi che t'assenti [9]; Chiaro risplender suole [9]; Già piansi nel dolore [9]; Io pur respiro [9]; Io tacerò, ma nel silenzio mio [6]; Mentre gira costei [6]; Mercè, grido piangendo [8]; Moro, lasso, al mio duolo [9]; Non mirar, non mirare [2]; O voi, troppo felici [8]; Quel 'no' crudel che la mia speme ancise [9]; Resta di darmi noia [9]; S'io non miro non moro [8]; Se la mia morte brami [9]; Sospirava il mio core [5]; Tu m'uccidi, o crudele [8]

Cécile Lohmuller, Ellen Giacone, soprano; Silvana Torto, contralto; Damien Roquetty, tenor; Erwan Picquet, baritone

[IV] "Evviva! Il Principe"
Dir: Mauro Borgioni
rec: March 18, 2016, Kartause Mauerbach (A), library
fra bernardo - fb 1618479 (© 2016) (38'17")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

Asciugate i begli occhi [8]; Baci soavi e cari [2]; Crudelissima doglia [5]; 'Mercè!', grido piangendo [8]; 'Non t'amo', o voce ingrato [5]; O dolce mio martire [2]; O voi troppo felici [8]; Poichè l'avida sete [8]; Se così dolce è il duolo [3]; Se vi duol il mio duolo [8]; Si gioioso mi fanno i dolor miei [2]; T'amo, mia vita [8]

Alessandra Gardini, Massimo Altieri, soprano; Jacopo Facchini, alto; Alberto Allegrezza, tenor; Mauro Borgioni, bass

Sources: [1] Rocco Rodio, ed., Il secondo libro di madrigali a 4 voci, 1587; Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa, [2] Madrigali a cinque voci, libro primo, 1594; [3] Madrigali a cinque voci, [libro secondo], 1594; [4] Luzzasco Luzzaschi, Il quarto libro de madrigali, 1594; Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa, [5] Madrigali a cinque voci, libro terzo, 1595; [6] Madrigali a cinque voci, libro quarto, 1596; [7] Alfonso Fontanelli, Il secondo libro de madrigali senza nome, 1604; Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa, [8] Madrigali a cinque voci, libro quinto, 1611; [9] Madrigali a cinque voci, libro sesto, 1611


The madrigals of Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa are considered the pinnacle of a genre which, until the emergence of instrumental genres like the sonata, was the main form of chamber music, frequently performed at aristocratic courts and in the private rooms of the higher echelons of society. Gesualdo himself was from an aristocratic family and had the official title of 'Prince of Venosa'. This very fact explains why for a long time he hid his activities as a composer, because - as Bernhard Trebuch writes in the liner-notes to LuciSerene's recording - "it was not seemly for a man of Gesualdo's status to be engaged in the manual task of composition". It makes him one of various composers in the course of history who considered themselves dilettantes.

The character of his madrigals in itself is enough to explain the strong interest in Gesualdo, but there are also extra-musical reasons. One of them is the fact that he murdered his first wife and her lover. It is notable that he was not punished for this crime; according to the law of the time he had the right to do what he did. He remarried in 1594, settled in Ferrara, but returned to his estates two years later. In the last fifteen years of his life he gradually withdrew from public life and suffered from physical and psychological problems. The latter also contributed to the fascination for the man and his music.

It is in particular the last two books with madrigals which receive much interest from performers. That is largely due to the fact that they seem so different from what was custom at the time. It is tempting to explain their somewhat bizarre character by Gesualdo's biography. His mental state could be responsible for his choice of texts - mostly about the tribulations of love - as well as his frequent use of chromaticism and strong dissonants. However, this is impossible to prove and is rather speculative. For a start, the madrigals cannot be dated with any certainty. It seems likely that the two last books are compilations of madrigals Gesualdo composed over a period of ten years or more. That makes it impossible to connect these 'late' madrigals to the composer's state of mind. Moreover, if we put his madrigals in their historical context they are less extravagant than one may think.

The choice of subject is certainly not unusual - on the contrary. Love is the main subject of madrigals from the 16th and early 17th century, and in fact of secular music throughout history. Composers probably preferred poems about the trials and tribulations of love, because they offered more opportunities for text expression. The latter became increasingly important in the course of the 16th century. Cipriano de Rore was one of the pioneers in this department; he was admired by the likes of Lassus and Monteverdi. He experimented with chromaticism, and he certainly wasn't the only one. A recent disc of the Huelgas Ensemble includes several examples of composers who made extensive use of chromaticism. Another composer who has to be mentioned is Luzzasco Luzzaschi; he strongly inspired Gesualdo and dedicated his fourth book of madrigals to him. It also needs to be mentioned that composers of a later generation from Naples - where Gesualdo was born and to which his family had close ties - followed in Gesualdo's footsteps. Harry van der Kamp, director of the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam, once characterised this repertoire as "volcanic music".

Another notable aspect of Gesualdo's oeuvre is that he exclusively composed in the stile antico. That is even the case with the last two books which were printed in 1611. At that time the stile nuovo had established itself, but Gesualdo never composed any piece with a basso continuo part. However, he certainly was not unique in this regard. Even Sigismondo d'India, who was one of the pioneers of the new style, published two books with madrigals for five voices without basso continuo as late as 1616. Gesualdo aimed at the same intensity of text expression and depiction of human emotions, but with the means of the stile antico. His madrigals and those of the likes of D'India attest to the coexistence of tradition and renewal in the early decades of the 17th century.

That said, there can be little doubt that Gesualdo was his own man in the way he used chromaticism and dissonances and also in his choice of texts. His social standing - being an aristocrat, and therefore completely independent, and not the servant of an employer - gave him total freedom to put his own ideas into practice. The peculiar character of his oeuvre was well recognized in his time. In 1613 his complete madrigals were reprinted in score form, which was highly unusual at a time that vocal music was printed in separate parts. Such a score allowed for a careful study of in particular Gesualdo's use of harmony.

Four recordings with Gesualdo's madrigals have been released recently. Two of them include a complete book: La Compagnia del Madrigale recorded the third book, Philippe Herreweghe, with his Collegium Vocale Gent, the sixth, and the two other discs reviewed here bring selections from various books.

Whereas the fifth and sixth books receive most attention as they are considered Gesualdo's most individual creations, the third book marks the change in his style which then resulted in these last books. This comes to the fore in his choice of poetry. Whereas many composers set texts which were popular and regularly used for madrigals, Gesualdo often avoided the obvious and commissioned poets to write texts he could use. He preferred poems with words and images which allowed for strong and incisive expression. It is notable that Gesualdo received 45 poems from the famous poet Torquato Tasso, but didn't set any of them. Voi volete, the madrigal in two parts which opens the collection, is from the pen of Giovanni Battista Guarini, but all the other poems are written by authors who are hardly known or have remained anonymous. One cannot exclude the possibility that some may have been written by Gesualdo himself, as was certainly the case in the last books.

One of the features of the madrigals in the third book is the opposition between life and death and between episodes in imitative counterpoint and rapid and florid passages of a more declamatory character. These are explored to the full in the performances of La Compagnia del Madrigale, which has to be considered probably the best madrigal ensemble right now. Only a couple of years ago their superb performance of the sixth book was released and this second disc has all the qualities of the previous one. The blending of the voices is immaculate and as a result the ensemble is excellent. The text receives utmost attention and every detail in the musical discourse is brought to light. This results in a highly expressive and incisive performance. Obviously the intonation has to be perfect in order to bring out the harmonic peculiarities of these madrigals. I very much hope that the ensemble will continue exploring Gesualdo's madrigals and that the remaining books will be recorded in due course.

In addition to Gesualdo's third book this disc includes three pieces by composers which in various ways are connected to him. Scipione Stella was an organist and composer from Naples. By 1594 he entered the service of Gesualdo and prepared the publication of the latter's first two books of madrigals in 1594. Sento dentro al cor mio was included in an anthology published in 1587. It is in accordance with the more 'traditional' madrigals of the time. That is very different in the case of Alfonso Fontanelli, who was an aristocrat, like Gesualdo, and an amateur composer. For several years he was close to Gesualdo and took care of the publication of the latter's third and fourth books of madrigals. He was a strong advocate of the seconda prattica, but Colei che già sì bella is written in the stile antico and shows a strong influence of Gesualdo. Lastly, Luzzasco Luzzaschi, the composer whom Gesualdo admired most and who strongly influenced his own development as a composer. Dolorosi martir, fieri tormenti is taken from the madrigal book of 1593, which Luzzasco dedicated to Gesualdo.

One probably doesn't associate Philippe Herreweghe with performances of madrigals. It is true that sacred music, and especially repertoire of the baroque era, is the core of his ensemble's repertoire. However, he has recorded several discs with renaissance polyphony and in 2013 his label released a recording of Gesualdo's Responsoria of 1611. These are not entirely comparable with the madrigals of the fifth and sixth books, but there are certainly similarities, and Herreweghe's recording showed that he is familiar with Gesualdo's idiom. That shows in this recording of the sixth book. The singers often work with Herreweghe and as a result these performances have a strong amount of cohesion. Collegium Vocale is not a madrigal ensemble, but under the direction of Herreweghe they can compete with the best in the business. I already mentioned the recording of this book by La Compagnia del Madrigale; it takes almost 78 minutes, whereas Herreweghe needs less than 68. I have not compared the two recordings in detail; I like them both, but maybe La Compagnia del Madrigale's performance has just a little more intensity. There are two issues which make me prefer the latter. In the Collegium Vocale the balance within the ensemble is less than ideal; in the performance of La Compagnia del Madrigale the lower voices and especially those in the middle are more clearly audible. Secondly, in Herreweghe's performances the singers are supported by a lute in several madrigals. There is no indication in the printed edition that a lute should participate, and this practice is not explained in the liner-notes. It doesn't really bother me, but I prefer a strictly vocal performance.

La Dolce Maniera offers a cross section of Gesualdo's madrigals. The title of their disc means "most sweet poison" and the subtitle is "a lyric journey of love, from meeting to separation". We hear twenty madrigals, divided into eight sections: Prologue, Enchantment, Love lived, Separation, Jealousy, Rage, Grief and Epilogue. This results in a strong variety of moods. However, even Gesualdo's more uplifting madrigals always seem to have a dark streak. The text is the starting point of La Dolce Maniera's interpretation. This is emphasized in the liner-notes, which seems a little odd as there are few ensembles that follow a different approach. Maybe the difference is somewhere else: the singers don't care that much about "homogenous colour of sound". And indeed, in these performances there is probably more room for an individual colouring of the voices than in the previous two and as a result this recording is a bit different as far as ensemble is concerned. I have no problems with that; it makes an interesting alternative. The interpretation is quite theatrical, due to strong contrasts in tempo between different sections of a madrigal and the fact that the pauses are given full weight. I also like the declamatory way of singing. One could probably argue that Gesualdo is approached here more or less from the angle of the seconda prattica rather than the stile antico. Unfortunately the balance within the ensemble is not perfect here as well; the voices in the middle are a bit overshadowed by the sopranos. The latter don't always completely avoid vibrato, but it is hardly disturbing. Overall I am quite happy with this disc.

Lastly, LuciSerene also recorded a selection from various books: the first, second, third and fifth. The programme seems to have been put together at random; I have not been able to discover a clear thread. The performances are pretty good; here the balance leaves nothing to be desired. However, as the miking is very close and the acoustic rather dry one can hear every voice individually and this goes at the cost of the whole picture. The ensemble and the blending of the voices is not as good as in the recordings of La Compagnia del Madrigale and the Collegium Vocale. Even so this could have given a good opportunity to become acquainted with the madrigals of Gesualdo, if the playing time had been more generous than a lousy 39 minutes. The lack of lyrics in the booklet doesn't make things better.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Collegium Vocale Gent
La Compagnia del Madrigale
La Dolce Maniera

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