Your clickable banner could be here: details If you cannot see an advert click here.
rotating banners
Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

Carlo GESUALDO (1560-1613)
Madrigals for five voices - Books 1, 2 and 3
Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam/Harry van der Kamp
rec. Renswonde, Reformed Church, Nederl, Hervormde Kerk, Dec 2001, Oct 2002. DDD
CPO 777 138-2 [71.44 + 71.09]


  AmazonUK   AmazonUS


Sometime in the late 1980s Gramophone magazine carried an advert for a recording of Gesualdo’s sacred music on the Gimell label. The headline ran something like "Is this great music or is it just weird?" This may indeed be your opinion of Gesualdo especially if you have heard only the late works: the church music or the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Madrigal books. However if you want to tackle Gesualdo again then this wonderful collection of 64 Madrigals from the 1590s is a perfect place to begin. And before we even get started you will be reassured to know that with the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam you are in safe hands ... and very sensitive and musical hands they are too.

In his essay on the composer’s life Jens Markowsky writes about Gesualdo’s influences and his training and influence. In this context we meet the name Pomponio Nenna (1555-1613). It seems that Nenna spent the years 1594-99 at the court at Venosa. It is not easy to hear Nenna’s music but I have a 1973 LP performed by the Academica Monteverdiana which is devoted to several of his madrigals. It is fascinating to hear pieces like ‘Merce, grido piangendo’ from his Book 5 because its harmony and pained expressionism is so ‘Gesualdian’(?) as also is its choice of an anonymous text. At the time (c.1600-08) Nenna was compiling this fifth book the Prince of Venosa was writing his last madrigals. Nenna’s earlier books date back to the 1580s and Gesualdo would certainly have known them well.

Gesualdo went to Ferrara in 1593-4 to meet the lady who was to become his second wife, Leonora D’Este. This followed the scandal of the murder of his first wife and lover in 1590. It was whilst in Ferrara in 1595 that Gesualdo became acquainted with the madrigals of Luzzasco Luzzaschi. According to the composer these altered his musical life and style. Indeed if one hears pieces like the expressive ‘Occhi del pianto mio’ (as on Musica Secreta’s collection on Amon Ra SAR 58) one can see what he admired. It is however difficult to understand as Luzzaschi’s madrigals are normally less chromatic and powerful. Of course Gesualdo may be referring to an element of improvisation, now obviously lost to us. He may also have been referring to Luzzaschi’s use of accompanying harpsichord or lute, a feature used by Harry van der Kamp for some of the Book 3 pieces.

It is not as easy as you might think to date these first three Gesualdo madrigal books. I think that some of the pieces must date back to the 1580s. That said, some commentators contend that he may not have written anything until after the infamous murders he committed in 1590. To me this is impossible. We know they were all published in Ferrara and that Book 1 was published on June 2nd 1594 and Book two curiously on May 10th. Book three followed in March 1595; the opening dedication page written by Scipone Stella tells us so. Scipione explained that he published them without the Prince’s knowledge. However this is very unlikely in an age when it wasn’t seemly for an amateur and a member of the aristocracy to be seen in his own self promotion so such a dedication is no big surprise. Surely these pieces must have been written over quite a long period before 1594-5. Some may even be very early works indeed. Stylistically there is some considerable variety. It is also difficult to believe that Gesualdo could have been so suddenly prolific with Book Four actually appearing a year later in 1596.

If you compare a madrigal from Book Two with, let us say the first one in Book Four ‘Luci serene e chiara’ and more especially with ‘Merce grido piangendo’ from Book Five, you realize three things: 1. How much more harmonically daring the composer has become; 2. How much more adept at handling voices. 3. How he has doubled the length of his musical canvas. Denis Stevens in his BBC Music Guide to Gesualdo describes these early pieces as a being in "a short-winded style". As several last less than two minutes you can appreciate what he means. The transitional book therefore, the key to this transformation, is the amazing Book Three. I have never heard these pieces sung so superbly. In fact I have never heard or sung all of them before, and so this recording is a complete revelation.

Incidentally it is not easy to work out if Gesualdo was at all influential in the pained and arguably often mannered style which he cultivated in later life. But perhaps I could draw your attention to Sigismundo D’India’s fine First Book of 1606, especially pieces like ‘Cruda Amarilli’ or perhaps Monteverdi’s 6th book (1614) with pieces like the impassioned ‘Lamento d’Arianna’.

These madrigals are too similar to make it desirable to listen to many of them in one sitting. The Gesualdo Consort gets around this problem by choosing a subtle variety of performance possibilities. The variants take many forms. Four part voices a capella, as in ‘Se da si nobil’ in Book 1. One voice or two voices with chitarrone and/or lute(s) as in ‘Sento che nel partire' in Book 2. In Book 3 the voices are with harpsichord. Sometimes we hear four voices with lute accompaniment as in the opening madrigal of book1, the arresting ‘Baci soavi e cari’ (analyzed brilliantly by Denis Stevens in the BBC book mentioned above. Intabulations for harpsichord alone precede the madrigal itself as in ‘Dolce spirito d’Amore’. It came as quite a surprise to me to find a harpsichord solo suddenly appearing as late as track 15 on CD 2 and then proceeding to do most of the accompaniment. The harpsichord and the instruments should certainly have had a little more forward placing in the sound spectrum when with the voices. Most importantly with all of these variations I never lost interest in the music despite a sameness in some madrigals with their typical word-painting on themes of death or pain or sighs.

Harry van der Kamp who directs and sings has done a wonderful job with these works. Never can they have sounded so convincing. The singers are ideal in this repertoire. There are none of the weak links that can sometimes mar even the most famous of ensembles.

Not only is the tuning miraculous but the singers lead us through the phrases in full understanding of where the line is leading, where the harmony will spring to next and what the text demands. This is coupled with superb and expressive use of the consonants. It is difficult to believe that they did not know each madrigal intimately before the recording sessions but by spreading them over two widely spaced sessions it gave time to digest the music’s complexities.

CPO has squeezed all three books onto two CDs. In a way this is a pity. Perhaps one CD for each book would have been attractive especially as they are asking full price.

Full texts and translations are given. There is a truly excellent (but thick) accompanying booklet with essays about the composer, the music and the performers’ approach by Harry van der Kamp. There are also recording session photographs and the usual biographies.

Gary Higginson

see also Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, Count of Conza by Len Mulenger

Harry van der Kamp who directs and sings has done a wonderful job with these works. Never can they have sounded so convincing. The singers are ideal and there are no weak links ... see Full Review

Return to Index

Untitled Document

Reviews from previous months
Join the mailing list and receive a hyperlinked weekly update on the discs reviewed. details
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board
Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.