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Carlo GESUALDO da Venosa (1566-1613): "Madrigals Book 1"

Delitiae Musicae
Dir: Marco Longhini

rec: July 23 - 27, 2007, Vincoli (Azzago, Verona), Chiesa di San Pietro
Naxos - 8.570548 (© 2010) (56'15")

Amor, pace non cheroa; Baci soavi e cari (1. Parte) - Quanto ha di dolce amore (2. Parte); Bella angioletta; Come esser può ch'io viva?; Gelo ha madonna il seno; Felice primavera! (1. Parte) - Danzan le ninfe (2. Parte)a; Madonna, io ben vorrei; Mentre madonna (1. Parte) - Ahi, troppo saggia (2. Parte); Mentre, mia stella, miri; Non mirar, non mirare; O dolce mio martire; Questi leggiadri odorosetti fiori; Se da si nobil mano; Si gioioso mi fanno il dolor miei; Son sì belle le rose; Tirsi morir volea (1. Parte) - Frenò Tirsi il desio (2. Parte)

(Sources: Madrigali libro primo, 1594)

Alessandro Carmignani, Paolo Costa, alto; Fabio Fùrnari, Paolo Fanciulacci, tenor; Marco Scavazza, baritone; Walter Testolin, bass; Carmen Leoni, harpsichorda

Few composers have so fascinated the music world as Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa. Part of the interest has been generated by his remarkable life, especially the fact that he once murdered his wife and her lover. Musically speaking the madrigals he composed in the latter stages of his life have raised the interest of performers and audiences as well as composers of a much later era. Among the latter is Igor Stravinsky who composed a Monumentum pro Gesualdo di Venosa, based on three of his madrigals. The late madrigals are collected in the fifth and sixth book, and move far away from the musical mainstream of his time. Until the end of his life Gesualdo stayed away from the seconda prattica and the use of a basso continuo. In his application of dissonances and chromaticism he goes further than any composer of his time.

In comparison his early madrigals are much more moderate and conventional. That is probably the main reason they haven't received as much attention as the later works. The first two madrigal books were published in the same year: 1594. They were presented as a compilation of madrigals Gesualdo had published previously. Unfortunately none of these have been preserved. So it is impossible to assess how exactly Gesualdo has developed as a composer of madrigals. The first two books certainly don't show a composer who is still in a learning process. These are mature works in which the texts are effectively expressed with the musical means of the time. Although there are some dissonances in a number of madrigals, Gesualdo doesn't go into extremes in regard to harmony as in his later madrigals.

In the first book he uses texts by famous poets, like Giovanni Battista Guarini and Torquato Tasso. Several of these were also set to music by other composers of his time, for instance Claudio Monteverdi and Luca Marenzio. Gesualdo seems to have had a special liking for gloomy texts. That is not only reflected by his madrigals, but by his motets as well. It is notable, though, that the first book ends with five madrigals of a more joyful character. The titles are telling: Bella angioletta (Beautiful little angel), Felice primavera! (Happy Spring!) and Danzan le ninfe oneste (The honest nymphs and shepherds dance). Compare these with titles of madrigals like Come esser può ch'io viva (How can it be that I live), O dolce mio martire (O sweet torment of mine) or Gelo ha madonna il seno (My lady has ice in her breast).

After having completed the recording of the madrigals of Claudio Monteverdi the ensemble Delitiae Musicae have started a project to record all six books of madrigals by Gesualdo. Marco Longhini's interpretation is quite unusual in several respects. To begin with, he consistently uses only male voices in his madrigal recordings. This means that the male alto Alessandro Carmignani who takes the upper part has to sing at the top of his range most of the time. He manages to do so quite well, but now and then his voice does sound a little stressed.

Historically this practice may be defensible, two other features of this interpretation are questionable. Firstly, the frequent tempo fluctuations which are often extreme and sound unnatural to my ears. At the last line of the first madrigal, Baci soavi e cari, the music almost comes to a standstill. Secondly, the use of crescendi and diminuendi. This is a interpretational device which rather belongs to the seconda prattica which was introduced in the early 17th century. But in these madrigals it seems hardly appropriate.

In three of the madrigals the harpsichord plays colla voce. I don't understand the reasoning behind this practice nor do I understand why it is used in these particular madrigals. Musically it is unsatisfying and damages the performance. In several madrigals the last line has to be repeated, and the ensemble takes mostly too long a pause before doing so. This becomes a bit annoying after a while. It is probably meant to increase the drama, but it doesn't.

It is these mannerisms that raise my scepticism about this new recording. The singers of Delitiae Musicae are excellent, and I certainly have enjoyed much of what they do. But there are just too many questionable issues in these interpretations, and because of that I can only recommend this disc with considerable caution.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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