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Gesualdo - Death for Five Voices
A Film by Werner Herzog
Il Complesso Barocco/Alan Curtis
Gesualdo Consort of London/Gerald Place
PCM Stereo
Picture Format: 16:9
Region Code 0 - Worldwide.
ARTHAUS MUSIK DVD 109208 [60:00]

This film is a production from 1995, and a previous DVD release was reviewed on MusicWeb International in 2007. Tim Perry was decidedly unimpressed by Werner Herzog’s work, and reviews to be found elsewhere show this to be something of a Marmite creation – people seem either to love or hate it. As far as I can tell this re-release is not much more than a repackaging of the original, and there are no significant extras.

It should be remembered that this was made as a TV documentary rather than a cinema film, and one in which there is plenty of space for imagination and suspension of disbelief rather than a straightforward telling of Gesualdo’s story on location. The locations are as much characters in this film as are the figures who appear, especially in the ruined castle: a chameleon that can represent the decay of Gesualdo’s mental state or the blasted terrain of his violent past – the power of his musical legacy contrasting with the transience of material things.

One can tie oneself up in knots looking too for this kind of symbolism, and in the end you can let such things lie and just enjoy the authentic and odd characters who bring life to episodes in Gesualdo’s life – the extravagance of his wedding banquet commented on by a surreal couple of chefs, and his demonic nature and eccentric behaviour talked about by employees at his palace in Naples and elsewhere.

The musical performances are filmed with simple informality like little rehearsal sessions, but set in gorgeous Italian interiors that suit the atmosphere of the whole. The actual recordings are decent enough though won’t be the raison d’Ítre for acquiring this film – it is not a music DVD in that sense. With a mixture of imaginative artifice, an occasional fragment of academic lecturing and quite a bit of more or less relevant meandering, it is easy to give way to frustration while watching, but if you can relax your expectations with regard to convention there is a great deal to enjoy and appreciate in Gesualdo, Death for Five Voices. This certainly adds dimensions to Gesualdo that you wouldn’t gain just from reading about him. Werner Herzog has to a certain extent adopted Gesualdo’s own radical nature in creating a picture with no clear single line of narrative. We are guided into unusual and surprising avenues and compartments in ways that remind me a little of the milder aspects of Mauricio Kagel’s Ludwig van. Relics take on special significance, long distant events become food for the imagination, and mythology and speculation take on their own legends and traditions.

I’m glad to have seen Gesualdo, Death for Five Voices. It’s not a great work of art but it is an intriguing documentary and certainly one that invites and inspires further exploration into this unique composer’s remarkable life and music.

Dominy Clements
Previous review (original release): Tim Perry



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