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Carlo GESUALDO da Venosa (1566 - 1613): "Madrigali, Libri Terzo & Quarto"

Les Arts Florissants
Dir: Paul Agnew

rec: Oct 2019a & Feb 2020b, Paris, Philharmonie
Harmonia mundi - HAF 895309.10 (2 CDs) (© 2021) (1.37'40")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

[Libro terzo, Ferrara, 1595]a Ahi, disperata vita; Ahi, dispietata e cruda; Ancidetemi pur, grievi martiri; Crudelissima doglia; Deh, se già fu crudele al mio martire; 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 del mio core; Se vi miro pietosa; Sospirava il mio core; Veggio sì dal mio sole; Voi volete ch'io mora
[Libro quarto, Ferrara, 1596]b A voi, mentre il mio core; Arde 'l mio cor, ed è sì dolce il foco; Che fai meco, mio cor misero e solo; Cor mio, deh, non piangete; Ecco, morirò dunque; Hor ch'in gioia credea viver contento; Il sol, qual hor più splende; Io tacerò, ma nel silentio mio; Luci serene, e chiare; Mentre gira costei; Moro, e mentre sospiro; Questa crudele, e pia; Se chiudete nel core; Sparge la morte al mio signor nel viso; Tal'hor sano desio

Miriam Allan, Hannah Morrison, soprano; Lucile Richardot, contralto; Sean Clayton, Paul Agnew, tenor; Edward Grint, bass

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 "it was not seemly for a man of Gesualdo's status to be engaged in the manual task of composition", as one commentator put it. 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. 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.

The third and fourth book can be considered as the link between the first two and the last two with regard to choice of texts and the use of harmony to express their content. They were published in 1595 and 1596 respectively, during Gesualdo's second sojourn in Ferrara. They were reprinted in Venice in 1603 and 1611, and a third time in Genoa in 1613 in score. The third book shows a "stylistic transformation", as Denis Morrier puts it in the liner-notes. "The pastoral and gallant atmosphere of an Arcadian Golden Age, which had previously prevailed, gives place to darker, even morbid or sometimes macabre themes". The texts often refer to death: "You wish for me to die", "I languish and die, o cruel lady", "Kill me then, o heavy torment", "My lady, if you cause my death, you become my whole life". Life is suffering, torture, torment and full of sorrow. The lady is cruel, pitiless, ungrateful. 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. This book also includes passages with chromaticism, which point into the direction of the last two books.

The trends of the third book carry on in the fourth. "The somewhat precious rhetoric of the poems is now filled with contradictions that pair a thing with its opposite. The murderous Prince delights in tracing the most extravagant musical figures, alternating between funereal and macabre images, hallucinatory visions and exaggerated passions". The words which refer to suffering, death or violence are graphically illustrated, for instance in Moro, e mentre sospiro (I die, and as I expire the breath of my sighs escapes and flies to become the spirit of another heart that likewise expires and dies). Morrier also mentions Sparge la morte al mio signor nel viso, but surprisingly does not indicate that this is different from all the other madrigals in that it has a spiritual text. It is about the suffering of Christ at the Cross. "Death colours the features of my Lord with a most pitiful horror amidst a mortal pallor." It closes with the lines: "But, fearful of gazing upon Death, He lowers his head, hiding his face, and dies". The Italian ensemble La Compagnia del Madrigale included it in its recording of Gesualdo's Responsoria of 1611.

Like the two first books, the books III and IV are far less well-known than the last two. That is regrettable because of their quality, but also because they show that the last books don't represent a sudden shift towards the extreme forms of chromaticism, dissonant harmonies and graphic word painting, but were prepared in the two previous books. Their different character in comparison with the two first books comes well off in the performances by Les Arts Florissants. I was quite impressed by the first volume of this project, and especially the way the voices blended, without ever becoming too smooth at the cost of expression. That is also the case here, and I strongly recommend this volume. Those who have enjoyed the first will not be disappointed with the second, in which the dramatic nature of the texts is fully explored. Thanks to the immaculate intonation, the many dissonances have maximum impact. Only here and there I noticed some vibrato in a few voices, but it did not really disturb my enjoyment of these performances. I am looking forward to the last volume. If this project is concluded, it may well be one of the best recordings of Gesualdo's madrigal output available on disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Les Arts Florissants

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