Gesualdo is more revered than sung, more discussed than heard,
more written about than performed. No group takes on his music
without having gained a certain high level of technical achievement.
To learn and record all of his madrigals from each of the six
books as Kassiopeia has apparently done is a major achievement.
Sadly, the arrival of these discs marked my first encounter with
them and I found myself wondering if the first four books have
already been released.
Other groups and ensembles
have recorded several of the madrigals. My favourites would
include the Fifth Book by the vocal ensemble ‘Metamorphoses’
directed by Maurice Bourbon on Arion (ARN 68388) recorded
in 1996. I shall be referring to them again later. There’s
also the Gesualdo Consort of Amsterdam
who I know have released the first three books (2005). La
Veneziana have tackled all of them but so far have only recorded
the Fourth Book. Les Arts Florissants under William Christie
recorded a selection for Harmonia Mundi (HMC 901268) in 1988
(re-released July 2009). They contribute delicious solo items
and are sometimes ‘aided’ by light continuo in the shape of
a theorbo or harp which also adds colour. The church music
has been recorded by different ensembles and although challenging
is more often encountered at Cathedral evensongs.
Carlo Gesualdo was an outsider. This is reflected
in the fact that as member of the aristocracy taking music
as seriously as he did as a creator was very rare. He escaped
justice after murdering his first wife and her lover and later
became estranged from his second. He lived in a quiet backwater
and was a member of the musical avant-garde. He rarely wrote
music in the light pastoral vein, with stories of nymphs,
shepherds and birds, typical of most of his contemporaries
including Cipriano de Rore the greatest of them. Gesualdo
wrote in a very personal, highly expressive and chromatic
style. This aspect of his music together with its sudden changes
of mood, unrelated adjacent chords, texture and text presents
a challenge. And it’s because all 128 madrigals (all six books)
follow a similar, somewhat troubled language we can say that
the works are mostly of the mannerist school - a style he
probably first heard in Ferrara and epitomised
by the music of Luzzasco Luzzaschi (1545-1607). Other composers
can be considered to be of the same ‘modernist’ inclination,
possibly Giaces de Wert (1535-96) and Luca Marenzio (1553-99)
but Gesualdo is the most prominent.
Over a period of five years Kassiopeia have wrestled
with Gesualdo’s complete madrigals, coming up with an interpretation
for each which, as the bass Tido Visser admits in his liner-notes
would be different all over again if they recorded them afresh.
Incidentally the notes for both discs are different and quite
fascinating. I admire everything Kassiopeia have done in these
Let’s take a look at how a Gesualdo madrigal hangs
together. Of these two books I prefer the Fifth as the Sixth
tends to have straight repeat sections more often. Anyway
I have a score of the complete Fifth Book, so I’ll start there.
It’s worth adding that despite the fact that these books date
from as late Gesualdo’s 47th year he may well have
published them retrospectively. Many may pre-date the Fourth
Book of 1596. The printing was undertaken by his publisher
under the beady eye of the composer in his own castle.
As a typical example I chose the brief number 19
“O tenebroso giorno” – a typical Gesualdo text which I feel
can be divided into four sections:
1. “Oh, gloomy day/Unhappy state/Oh, my sad heart,
born only to weep!
Rather chromatic, emphasizing “gloomy” and moving
steadily in plain minims and crotchets.
2. “When will you return joyful before her?/Who
is lovelier, more graceful?”
More movement, now in imitative quavers and harmonically
more settled and centred on modern F major emphasizing “graceful”.
3. “And fairer than all other”
A lighter texture marked now by semi-quaver movement
across the voices suitable for the word ‘leggiarda’ with the
addition of F#s and with B flats removed.
4. “Whose eyes soothe both death and life”
Here the music slows into minims and semibreves
and sinks down into a low tessitura with a feeling of modern
D minor but ending on an imperfect cadence: “death or life”
In this performance it is all over in two minutes.
The poem then is divided into short lines each one with a
suitable image to capture Gesualdo’s word-painting techniques
such as “gloomy”, “weep”, “return”, “joyful”, and “graceful”.
And the singers must be attuned to these changes and express
them not with a sudden burst of activity or change of dynamic
or tone colour but with a musical gradation of tone and nuance
so that the whole madrigal appears as one breath, one total
entity. Kassiopeia do this very well, as do the groups mentioned
above, except that Kassiopeia, having studied each of the
master’s madrigals from Book 1 onwards are more relaxed in
the language. They seem confident of where the piece is going
and where they want to take it.
There are no star singers in Kassiopeia but they
have a young, fresh-faced and open-eyed view which is refreshing.
I mentioned above the recording of Book 5 by the ensemble
‘Metamorphoses’. Their performances use more vibrato. They
err on the slower and more expressive side, which certainly
appeals in a different way. On the other hand, their church
acoustic may not be quite so pleasing although one’s ears
do quickly adjust.
If you are intrigued by this music or by Gesualdo
then this is a good place to start as far as the madrigals
are concerned. The church music is possibly a little easier
to navigate. However the heart of this great composer lies
in these two books as we can hear from these beautifully prepared
and expressive performances.
There is a fascinating essay in each accompanying
booklet in which all texts are given and are well translated.