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Carlo GESUALDO (1566-1613)
Madrigali a cinque voci
Selections from Libro V and VI (1611) [60:31]
Exaudi Vocal Ensemble/James Weeks
rec. 2019, St Bartholemew’s Church, Oxford, UK
WINTER & WINTER 910 259-2 [60:31]

Recorded with funding from a successful crowdfunding campaign, this selection of madrigals by Gesualdo delivers some of his most extreme writing in this genre in performances of striking expressive depth. Conductor James Weeks goes into Gesualdo’s troubled life in the notes that occupy the lining of the glossy gatefold package in which the CD is housed, with a nicely presented separate booklet that has the sung texts printed in Italian, English and German.

There is a certain amount of myth-busting involved here. The Fifth and Sixth books of madrigals were published in 1611 at the end of Gesualdo’s life, but by his own assertion were composed during his time at the court of Ferrara between 1594 and 1597. Ferrara was at this time a hotbed of musical experimentation, and Gesualdo clearly responded to the chromatic and even microtonal music being made there by the likes of Luzzasco Luzzaschi. “If it is true that these works were written by the 30-year-old Gesualdo in Ferrara, we must jettison some of our most cherished ideas about his isolated, ‘late’ style and embrace instead the idea that these are works written by a young man in the blazing heat of inspiration, working at the very epicentre of musical innovation.”

These most personal expressions from “a natural avant-gardist” open with the extreme harmonies and range of ‘Mercé!’, grido piangendo (‘Mercy!’, I cry, weeping), an impressive fanfare phrase that takes us into some of Gesualdo’s most remarkable sliding harmonic shifts and unexpected resolutions. The voices of Exaudi are superbly attuned to each other, but are also characterful as individuals and highly responsive to the texts. Inner tensions are explored with selective use of vibrato to give ornamental and expressive weight, and there is a breathtakingly wide spectrum of colour and dynamic shading. Just take Deh, com ivan sospiro (Ah, how in vain I sigh). An almost satirical ‘vanity’ is immediately placed against a sensitive ‘sospiro’, and the opposing messages throughout this brief but self-indulgent text are all beautifully turned-out - amours for ‘miro’, delight in ‘gioire’, and the final ‘che la vita per me divenga morte’ is sublime. We’ve all suffered unrequited love, and these miniature melodramas sum up such agonies with the power of Shakespearian sonnets.

Following the texts with this fine recording is a genuine delight, and your appreciation for these performances will grow the deeper you go into them – at least, I hope so. Tastes differ, and I can imagine some feeling that the contrasts of mood in something like Mille volte il di moro are a bit cartoonish. There are of course many ways to skin a cat. Concerto Soave on the Zig-Zag Territoires label (review) add what sounds by comparison to be a rather redundant harpsichord, leaving me entirely unmoved, and La Compagnia del Madrigale on the Glossa label (review) are better, but by comparison with Exaudi tend to tiptoe around the heavy emotions going on here. Musica Ficta recorded live on the Danacord label (review) give this piece a good go and there’s an amusing gulp of air about halfway through, but this performance doesn’t have the refinement of Exaudi. What makes Exaudi special to my ears is the red-blooded way in which they tackle this kind of text, line-editing their response and changing their expression within phrases to deliver maximum effect. Just take the two lines ‘E tu, alma crudele, se il mio duolo/t’affligge si, ché non ten fuggi a volo?’ and hear how many changes there are, and what a contrast there is between ‘cruelty’ and ‘flight’. Exaudi is of course by no means the only ensemble to give careful consideration to Gesualdo’s remarkable settings, but by heavens they do it better than most.

Basically, if you are keen on Gesualdo’s Madrigali then you owe it to yourself to acquire this recording. Recording production values are very high indeed, with a fairly close but by no means cramped balance, the pleasant acoustic of St Bartholemew’s Church being allowed to add its halo of resonance to these well-spaced and hauntingly memorable voices.

Dominy Clements

'Mercè!', grido piangendo (V) [4:22]
Io pur respiro in così gran dolore (Vi) [3:03]
Itene, o miei sospiri (V) [2:58]
Gioite voi col canto (V) [3:16]
'Io parto' e non più dissi (Vi) [3:21]
S'io non miro non moro (V) [2:55]
Deh, come invan sospiro (Vi) [3:27]
Mille volte il dì moro (Vi) [3:12]
Asciugate i begli occhi (V) [4:02]
O dolorosa gioia (V) [3:56]
Se la mia morte brami (Vi) [3:45]
Ardita zanzaretta (Vi) [3:17]
Volan quasi farfalle (Vi) [2:32]
Al mio gioir il ciel si fa sereno (Vi) [2:11]
Dolcissima mia vita (V) [2:45]
Tu piangi, o Filli mia (Vi) [3:09]
Moro, lasso, al mio duolo (Vi) [3:46]
Languisce al fin chi da la vita parte (V) [4:24]

Juliet Fraser (soprano), Lucy Goddard (mezzo soprano), Tom Williams (countertenor), Stephen Jeffes en David de Winter (tenor), Jimmy Holliday (bass)

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