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Carlo GESUALDO (1566-1613)

Libro 6: Se la mia morte brami [3:49]; Belta╠, poi che t'assenti [3:45]; Mille volte il di moro [3:54]; Io parto, e piu╠ non dissi [3:36]
Libro 1: O dolce mio martire [2:13]
Libro 3: Non t’amo, o voce ingrata [2:34]; Meraviglia d'Amore [3:13]
Libro 4: Luci serene e chiare [3:25]; Il sol, qual or piu╠ splende [3:11]
Libro 5: Dolcissima mia vita [3:15]; Merce╠, grido piangendo [4:14]; Se vi duol il mio duolo [3:29]; Asciugate i begli occhi [4:19]
Libro 6: Mille volte il di moro [3:54]; Se la mia morte brami [3:49]; Belta╠, poi che t'assenti [3:54] Io parto, e piu╠ non dissi [3:36].
Musica Ficta/Bo Holten
rec. live, Festival MousikÚ, Bari, Italy, 2013

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 musical experimenter.

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 harpsichordist.

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 English madrigalists.

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 Nonsense Madrigals). This disc stands as a fine introduction to Gesualdo. I certainly learnt a lot listening to this music and in preparing this review.

John France


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