As a listener, my preference is for twentieth century music: I can happily
deal with anything that is presented to me from Adams to Xenakis and from
Alwyn to Zemlinsky. I do enjoy the music of other periods and certainly
glory in the great flowering of music in the Tudor period in England and the
church music of Monteverdi in Italy. Madrigals are a form that I rarely sit
down and listen to - unless they are Victorian part-songs, which I adore.
Gesualdo is a name that is totally off my radar. All I knew before reviewing
this CD is that he was a murderer and is deemed by some to be an extreme
Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa was born in Naples in c.1566 and died
in the same city in 1613. He has been well described as a ‘modern
madrigalist’ who explored harmonic effects that pushed beyond what was
generally regarded as acceptable to the musical establishment at that time.
His madrigals are collected in six volumes which were published during the
composer’s lifetime. He was also a lutenist, guitarist and
Gesualdo’s teacher — or was it colleague? — was believed to be Pomponia
Nenna who also explored and expanded tonality but to a lesser extent than
his pupil. Unfortunately, Carlo G is nowadays usually recalled as the
composer who had his unfaithful wife and her lover murdered. Around 1594 he
moved to Ferrara (birthplace of Frescobaldi) which was then an important
artistic centre. Gesualdo remarried - to Leonora d’Este.
The first four volumes of madrigals appeared between 1594 and 1596. The
following year Gesualdo returned to Naples where he resided until his death.
The final two volumes of the set appeared in 1611 and represent his most
radical achievement. It is a myth to suppose that everything he wrote was at
the harmonic cutting-edge. Much of his earlier work is in the ‘classic’
style of the Italian madrigalists. It was with the last volumes that he
begins to push boundaries into a sound-world that four hundred years later
sounds ‘modern’ and even ‘avant garde’. Influentially, it has been suggested
that some of Gesualdo’s extreme chromaticism may have rubbed off onto some
of the early 17th
It would be easy to accuse Carlo G. of using chromaticism and dissonance
simply for effect. However, scholars seem to be agreed that the reason for
his technical innovations and experiments was to enhance the musical and
poetic interpretation of the text.
The music on this disc is drawn from all six books, however the emphasis
is on the more radical final two volumes. Listeners should note that the
first four madrigals are repeated at the end of the recital in a slightly
different order, but having the same timings.
The musical director Bo Holten is clearly a fan of the composer: he has
composed two operas based on Gesualdo’s life and times. His own work acts as
a bridge between ‘old and new’ music. Musica Ficta is a professional vocal
ensemble that specialises, but is not limited to, early music. Their
enthusiasm for Carlo Gesualdo’s music is impressive.
This is a live recording made in an ancient 12th century chapel so the
listener has to be tolerant to the odd ‘sounds off’. Yet I believe that this
is not a problem. It brings the music to life, it provides a context that
would have delighted the composer and gives a spontaneity that is denied to
a studio-produced performance.
I will never be a Gesualdo groupie – it is just not my period or style,
however it is sometimes revelatory to push one’s listening boundaries beyond
the comfort zone. I enjoyed this music immensely although some of it is
genuinely ‘painful’ on the emotions. There is much that is indescribably
beautiful in these madrigals as well as moments that are difficult even for
a generation versed in the music of Stockhausen and Ligetti (try the
). This disc stands as a fine introduction to
Gesualdo. I certainly learnt a lot listening to this music and in preparing