musica Dei donum
Carlo GESUALDO da Venosa (1566 - 1613): Sacrarum cantionum quinqui vocibus
Odhecaton; Ensemble Mare Nostrum; Liuwe Tamminga, organa
Dir: Paolo Da Col
rec: October 2013, Venosa, Abbazia della SS. Trinità; Molfetta, Chiesa di San Bernardinoa
Ricercar - RIC 343 (© 2014) (63'30")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I; lyrics - translations: E/F/I
Cover, track-list & booklet
Carlo GESUALDO da Venosa:
Ave, dulcissima Maria;
Ave regina coelorum;
Deus, refigium et virtus;
Dignare me laudare te;
Domine, ne despicias deprecationem meam;
Exaudi, Deus, deprecationem meam;
Hei mihi, Domine;
Illumina faciem tuam;
Laboravi in gemitu meo;
Maria, mater gratiae;
O crux benedicta;
O vos omnes;
Peccantem me quotidie;
Precibus et meritis;
Reminiscere miserationum tuarum;
Sancti Spiritus, Domine;
Tribularer si nescirem;
Tribulationem et dolorem;
Venit lumen tuum;
Luzzasco LUZZASCHI (c1545-1607):
Ave maris stella;
Giovanni DE MACQUE (c1549-1614):
Giovanni Maria TRABACI (c1575-1647):
Consonanze stravagantia 
 Giovanni Maria Trabaci, Ricercate, canzone francese, capricci, canti fermi ..., Libro Primo, 1603
[Odh] Alessandro Carmignani, Andrea Arrivabene, Gianluigi Ghiringhelli, Renzo Bez, alto;
Alberto Allegrezza, Gianluca Ferrarini, Vincenzo Di Donato, Paolo Fanciullacci, tenor;
Marco Scavazza, Mauro Borgioni, baritone;
Davide Benetti, Marcello Vargetto, bass;
Andrea Inghisciano, cornett;
Marta Graziolino, harp;
Giangiacomo Pinardi, lute;
Michele Pasotti, theorbo
[MN] Andrea De Carlo, Amélie Chemin, Sarah Van Oudenhove, François Joubert-Caillet, viola da gamba
The name of Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa is inextricably connected to the madrigal. In particular his last two books of madigals stand out for their harmonic experiments and the extensive use of chromaticism. In this department he was not unique: composers of previous generations, such as Luzzasco Luzzaschi, had paved the way for him and some of his contemporaries. Composers of the next generations from the Naples regions went even some steps further.
In comparison less attention is given to Gesualdo's sacred output. His music for Holy Week - the Responsoria of 1611 - is by far the best-known part of his sacred oeuvre. Although the Cantiones Sacrae, printed in 1603, are certainly not completely overlooked, the number of recordings is limited. It seems that some observers find it difficult to understand that someone like Gesualdo would feel attracted to sacred music. In his liner-notes to the present recording Jérôme Lejeune asks: "Given that he was under no obligation to compose for any court ensemble, why should he have become interested in sacred music?" That seems a rather odd question. It is true that composers mostly wrote sacred works as part of their responsibility for the liturgy. As Gesualdo, being an aristocrat, was a dilettante and was never in the service of a church or a court he was not obliged to write sacred music, or any music, for that matter. But why should a composer feel the need to compose madrigals and not to write motets? It is probably because Gesualdo's madrigals and what we know about his biography that it seems hard to think of him as a true believer.
However, there is no reason to assume that he was not or that he only became interested in religious matters after the tragic events which dominate the present-day view of his character. At that time everyone - generally speaking - was a faithful member of the church. The sacred music Gesualdo published in 1603 and 1611 was not his first; in 1585 a motet from his pen was included in an anthology. There is reason, though, to assume that the events in his life which have given him the reputation of being mentally unstable have increased his religious fervour. The collection of Cantiones Sacrae have two major subjects: penitence and Marian devotion. In the doctrine of the Catholic Church these two aspects are closely connected as the Virgin Mary, "mother of grace and mercy" (Maria, Mater gratiae), is considered the mediary between man and God. This was further emphasized by the Counter Reformation. The same subjects were also depicted on the altarpiece that Gesualdo placed in his palace in that same year 1603.
The fact that the Cantiones Sacrae are not performed that often is a reason to welcome a new recording of the complete collection. However, I am rather sceptical about these interpretations by the ensemble Odhecaton. The main reason is that Paolo Da Col decided to perform most of these works with voices and instruments. The reasoning behind this decision is not made crystal clear in the notes on the performance by Da Col. If one is able to read the original French version one will notice that the English translation is misleading. It says: "Instead of using a balanced ensemble that would be the norm in a typical musical establishment of the time, Gesualdo chose rather to make use of a variety of combinations of voices and instruments (...)". However, Da Col does not claim that this option is based on any indication by the composer. His argument seems to be that as Gesualdo did not need to take into account what was common practice at the time the interpreter has the freedom to opt for a mixture of voices and instruments. I find this rather implausible. The use of instruments, either to support the voices or to replace some of them, was quite common at the time in liturgy, although probably mostly at special occasions. However, Gesualdo's motets were written for performance by his own chapel, and I haven't found any indication that it included instrumentalists. It is exactly the private nature of these motets which suggests a a cappella performance, with one voice per part. The penitential character of many of these motets also point in the direction of a purely vocal performance.
These settings are highly expressive. In some cases Da Col decided to omit any instrumental participation "to emphasise the words' expressive weight and the meticulous attention paid by the composer to the symbolic and expressive weight of each section of the text". I don't think there is any reason to single out some motets for that reason, because even though there are differences in character between the various motets they share the overall level of expression due to the close connection between text and music.
It is especially the audibility of the texts - and as a result also the affetti they want to expose - which heavily suffers from the participation of instruments. In some pieces we hear a cornett, either as a substitution of the voice or playing colla voce with the alto Alessandro Carmignani. There is little difference between them: just like the cornett Carmignani produces sound rather than text. And as his voice is quite penetrating he overshadows his colleagues, and one doesn't hear much text from them either. The communication of the content is the key factor in any performance of Gesualdo's music, and in this respect this recording is largely a failure.
The addition of organ works by two Neapolitan contemporaries of Gesualdo, Giovanni Maria Trabaci and in particular Giovanni de Macque, an organist who was in the service of Gesualdo's father Fabrizio, is interesting and revealing as they show some similarities with the idiom of Gesualdo's vocal works. It is easy to understand that De Macque was one of his sources of inspiration. Liuwe Tamminga plays them well.
They don't compensate for the lack of persuasiveness of these interpretations of Gesualdo's Cantiones Sacrae. Those who look for a really good performance of these motets will have to wait.
Johan van Veen (© 2015)
Ensemble Mare Nostrum