musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Carlo GESUALDO da Venosa (1566 - 1613): "Madrigali Libri primo & secondo"

Les Arts Florissants
Dir: Paul Agnew

rec: June 2019, Paris, Philharmonie
Harmonia mundi - HAF 8905307.08 (© 2019) (81'43")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

[Libro primo, Ferrara, 1594] Baci soavi, e cari; Bella Angioletta da le vaghe piume; Com'esser può ch'io viva se m'uccidi; Felice primavera; Gelo ha Madonna il seno; Madonna, io ben vorrei; Mentre Madonna il lasso fianco posa; Mentre, mia stella, miri; Non mirar, non mirare; O dolce mio martire; Questi leggiadri odorosetti fiori; Se da sì nobil mano; Sì gioioso mi fanno i dolor miei; Son sì belle le rose; Tirsi morir volea
[Libro secondo, Ferrara, 1594] All'apparir di quelle luci ardenti; Candida man, qual neve, a gl'occhi offerse; Caro amoroso neo; Dalla odorate spoglie; Hai rotto, e sciolto, e spento a poco a poco; In più leggiadro velo; Non è questa la mano; Non mai, non cangerò; Non mi toglia il ben mio; O come è gran martire; Se così dolce è il duolo; Se per lieve ferita; Se taccio, il duol s'avanza; Sento che nel partire

Miriam Allan, Hannah Morrison, soprano; Lucile Richardot [II], Mélodie Ruvio [I], contralto; Sean Clayton, Paul Agnew, tenor; Edward Grint, bass

It was anything but obvious that Carlo Gesualdo was to be active as a composer. Being the second son of an aristocrat, it was his destination to make a career in the church. However, when his elder brother died, it was Carlo who became the heir of his father's estate. The latter was an ardent music lover, and from early on Carlo showed a great passion for music too. Even so, for an aristocrat a professional involvement in music was out of the question, as musicians were at the other end of the social ladder. It was the keyboard player and composer Giovanni de Macque, who entered the service of the Gesualdo court in 1585, who assisted him in publishing his first composition, a motet, and then three instrumental works, which have been lost. It seems that at about the same time he started to turn to the genre of the madrigal.

In 1594, he was to marry Leonora d'Este in Ferrara, and this offered Gesualdo a unique opportunity to present and perform his madrigals, as Ferrara was a centre of music making and in particular famous for the performances of madrigals, especially by an ensemble of female singers, the Concerto delle Donne, directed by Luzzasco Luzzaschi. The latter was one of Gesualdo's musical heroes. That same year, in the wake of his marriage, he published his first two books of madrigals, scored for five voices. This was the usual scoring, but whereas composers generally preferred a line-up with two sopranos (SSATB), Gesualdo often derives from this standard. Among the twenty madrigals in the first book, only five follow this model, whereas ten include two tenor parts and the five remaining pieces have two alto parts. That said, this does not indicate the voice types which should be used in modern performances. It depends on the tessitura of a particular part whether it needs to be sung by an alto or by a soprano or a tenor. In the first book, for instance, the alto Mélodie Ruvio sings the tenor part in three madrigals, and the two sopranos Miriam Allan and Hannah Morrison take the alto parts in three madrigals.

As one may expect, Gesualdo took texts by the main poets of his time, such as Giovanni Battista Guarini and in particular Torquato Tasso, who was a personal friend of Gesualdo. Whereas the authors of most poems in the first book are known, many in the second book are impossible to identify. A number of madrigals are in two parts. Most of the texts are about unhappy love, and this results in the use of dissonances to illustrate key words which give expression to desperation and sadness. However, these madrigals are far away from the style Gesualdo adopted in his two last books, which today are considered the hallmark of his madrigal oeuvre. Often that style is connected to the tragic events for which Gesualdo has become famous: the murder of his first wife and her lover in 1590. That connection is questionable, though. It seems plausible that the sacred music which Gesualdo composed in the last years of his life, was inspired by this event, and was written as an expression of his penitence. "But for the madrigals it is difficult, even in the most extreme experiments of the final books, to make a cogent argument for any relationship between the events of 1590 and his secular compositions", Paul Agnew states in his liner-notes.

Although composers generally preferred madrigals about the trials and tribulations of love, they now and then also wrote settings of more uplifting texts, for instance in connection with nature, and especially spring (bk I, Felice primavera). In such texts Gesualdo obviously avoids harmonic progressions that express pain, and rather illustrates the text with lively rhythms, such as in the madrigal just mentioned: "[Birds] rustle in the branches above the murmuring stream". Denis Morrier, in his notes to the two books, mentions "skilful musical treatment [of the texts]", "contrapuntal rigour" and "expressive refinement" as features of the madrigals in these two books.

Those qualities come off here to perfection. Paul Agnew, in his capacity as co-director of Les Arts Florissants, has performed the complete madrigals by Monteverdi in the past. Three discs have been released; considering the qualities of the performances, it is most regrettable that they were not recorded complete. Fortunately, all live performances are available on YouTube. This production is the first volume of what will be a complete recording of the six madrigal books by Gesualdo. With the first two, he and his colleagues have made a promising start. The intelligibility of the text is of utmost importance, and in this regard these performances leave nothing to be desired. The voices match perfectly; it is only in the forte passages that now and then a slight vibrato creeps in, but that is hardly disturbing. There is some fine dynamic shading, and the singers rightfully avoid the strong dynamic contrasts which are needed in madrigals of a more 'modern' style, such as those by Monteverdi. Some passages are sung at a very low dynamic level, if the text asks for it. Here the blending of the voices is immaculate. The miking is rather close, which is not without danger, but it lends these pieces the intimacy for which they were intended.

On a technical note, this entire recording takes a little over 82 minutes, which means that a single disc should suffice. It is a bit of a mystery to me why Harmonia mundi thought it necessary to produce a set of two.

These two books are far less frequently recorded than the fifth and sixth. This recording shows that this relative neglect is unjustified. Lovers of Gesualdo's madrigals may own one or several recordings of these pieces, but they should seriously consider adding this new recording to their collection. I am sure they will return to it regularly.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Les Arts Florissants

CD Reviews