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Carlo GESUALDO, Prince of Venosa (1566-1613)
Madrigals - Book 5 (1611)
Kassiopeia Quintet (Orlanda Velez (soprano); Matilde Castro (soprano); Noa Frenkel (alto); Jan-Willem Schaafsma (tenor); Tido Vesser (bass)); Luisa Tavares (mezzo); Marco van de Klundert (tenor)
rec. Nederland’s Hervormde Koepelkerk, July 2007
GLOBE GLO5225 [56.27]







Carlo GESUALDO, Prince of Venosa
Madrigals - Book 6 (1611)
Kassiopeia Quintet (Orlanda Velez (soprano); Matilde Castro (soprano); Noa Frenkel (alto); Jan-Willem Schaafsma (tenor); Tido Vesser (bass)); Luisa Tavares (mezzo); Marco van de Klundert (tenor)
rec. Nederlands Hervormde Koepelkerk, July 2008
GLOBE GLO5226 [67.15]


Experience Classicsonline

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 two books. 

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. 

Gary Higginson




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