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Concert reviews

Carlo GESUALDO da Venosa: Sesto Libro di Madrigali
Collegium Vocale Gent/Philippe Herreweghe
concert: May 29, 2015, Utrecht, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)

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

Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa is certainly one of the most fascinating characters in music history. The attention which has been given to his relatively small compositional output during the last fifty years or so surely has to do with his personality but also with the very character of his music which seems quite unusual. In more recent times his madrigals have bee put in their historical perspective, and it has become clear that - as individualistic as their idiom may be - they root in the past, especially the madrigals of Luzzasco Luzzaschi and Luca Marenzio. Gesualdo was also not unique in his frequent use of chromaticism and dissonants: composers from a next generation went even some steps further as a concert by the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam some years ago in the Utrecht Festival Early Music showed.

The sixth and last book was the subject of a concert by the Collegium Vocale Gent, directed by Philippe Herreweghe. The genre of the madrigal had become very popular during the 16th century. Madrigals were not written for public concerts in large rooms, but rather for performance in the intimacy of a palace, for friends and relatives. These factors point in the direction of a performance with solo voices as was the case here. One could even argue that the singers of such music hardly need a conductor. However, as these madrigals are extremely complicated it is probably asking too much to expect one of the singers also to direct the ensemble.

The chamber music hall of TivoliVredenburg was probably a little larger than was ideal, but the acoustic is pretty intimate and that made it quite suitable for this programme. One cannot sing this kind of music with a group of singers which have been put together at random. Although the Collegium Vocale is a flexible ensemble with different line-ups from one programme to the other, the singers in this concert are regulars who often participate in concerts and recordings. Therefore one may expect them to be able to adapt their voices and their way of singing to each other. The blending of the five voices was indeed admirable, without any of them losing their individual character. The only issue I noted was the balance within the ensemble. It seemed to me that the upper voices, and especially Hana Blaziková, were a little too dominant whereas the lower voices, and especially the tenor, were a little underexposed. However, it is quite possible that this was also due to the part of the hall where I was seated: in front of the ensemble but a little to the left where the sopranos were standing.

One feature of the concert was remarkable. The list of performers included the lutenist Thomas Dunford. In between the madrigals he played some lute pieces by Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger, but he also participated in the performance of Gesualdo's madrigals. These are for voices alone and are mostly performed a capella. Dunford obviously didn't play a kind of basso continuo but supported the various voices. I couldn't quite follow what exactly he did play which in a way is a positive thing as the voices should dominate. In fact the lute was probably added more on behalf of the singers than to add anything substantial to the performances. The use of a lute in these madrigals seems a matter of debate. It is not indicated in the score but that doesn't exclude that it was used in performances. After all, Gesualdo played the lute himself.

The two pieces by Kapsberger were well chosen as they show the same capriciousness as Gesualdo's madrigals. This feature is one of the main challenges for the singers as well as for the audience. The music of the sixth madrigal book is often pretty bizarre, but so are many of the texts which are all anonymous but could be from Gesualdo's own pen, or at least some of them. The singers passed the test with flying colours. They were very responsive to the texts and the many contrasts in mood which Gesualdo has so painstakingly translated into music. As he also uses harmony for expressive reasons a very precise intonation is a prerequisite for a convincing performance. One doesn't need to worry about that in performances of the Collegium Vocale. Not announced in the programme was the lute solo which was played before the last four madrigals. I think it was the Canarios by Gaspar Sanz which seemed an odd choice at first because it is from a much later time (Sanz lived from 1640 to 1710) but also because of its playful nature. But a look at the texts revealed that its inclusion made much sense as the last four madrigals are different from the previous 19. The latter are mostly sad - in various gradations - whereas the last four are more positive and even uplifting, both in text and in music.

This concert was part of a tour with the sixth book of madrigals by Gesualdo. The Collegium Vocale was also to give concerts in Italy and during the Early Music Festival in Stockholm. Although there are a number of good recordings of this collection it would be nice if the Collegium Vocale would add its interpretation to the catalogue. There seems a good chance that will happen, on Herreweghe's own label PHI, I assume. That is something to look forward to. This concert was the perfect appetizer and demonstrated that Gesualdo was not only a fascinating character, but that his madrigals are no less intriguing.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

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