Gesualdo: Quinto Libro di Madrigali (ECM New Series 2175)

Gesualdo Madrigali

Carlo Gesualdo
Quinto Libro di Madrigali

The Hilliard Ensemble
Monika Mauch soprano
David James countertenor
David Gould countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Steven Harrold tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Recorded November 2009 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

If my grief pains you,
only you, my soul,
can turn it all to joy.

On first hearing madrigals by Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613), English writer Aldous Huxley proclaimed, “These voices—they’re a kind of bridge back to the human world.” In the mouths of the Hilliard Ensemble they certainly are. Baritone Gordon Jones cites the Prince of Venosa as a touchstone of the ensemble’s performing repertoire. And so, it is with practiced appreciation that they return to it as they take on his Fifth Book of Madrigals of 1611 in its entirety. Gesualdo finished his Sixth and final Book (he would leave fragments of an unfinished Seventh) in the same year, penning his first in 1594. Of the Fifth, Jones says, “The whole collection constitutes a gallery of dramatically lit portraits of human emotions with a heavy emphasis on the extremes of joy and despair.” On this note, the addition of soprano Monika Mauch and countertenor David Gould speaks to the range and color required of those extremes, and in this regard the ensemble emotes splendidly.

One can hardly discuss this music without mentioning its bold, mannerist dissonances. Written as it was by a man who had his wife and her lover murdered when he caught them in flagrante delicto and who subsequently receded into his own psycho-sonic cage, this can be no surprise. Even by today’s standards it rattles us. Yet to characterize Gesualdo’s output by so reductive a summation (dissonance, for example, was part and parcel of the madrigal idiom) would be to ignore the textually sensitive traditions of harmonic expansion upon which he built it. Despite being professedly “ahead of his time,” he was no enigma to his aristocratic contemporaries, being a particular favorite of Queen Christina of Sweden. For every gritty texture he loosed, a smoother one was in attendance, and we do well to remember the equal weight in both pans of the scale.

We have the Hilliard/ECM partnership to thank for already having done the composer justice with a sublime and direct rendition of his Tenebrae Responsories for the Christian Holy Week. Here that same trueness to the melodic line remains, and is so magnified by the bareness of its voices, by which the tortuousness we’ve come to expect lives by a more fluid name. If it lives anywhere, it is in the strange tenderness of Gioite voi col canto, which opens the collection with an autobiographical tinge:

Rejoice in song,
while I weep and sigh,
while tears choke my breath.
Alas, wretched heart of mine,
born for grief alone;
weep, but weep so much
that my mistress may be vanquished
by your tears, and then revert to seeing
my grief and pains in her.

The shifting tectonics of tenor lines and dulcet edge of Mauch’s gilding in the words’ weeping evocation is testament both to Gesualdo’s knack for comingling and to the sensitivity of the singers assembled at Propstei St. Gerold, where these works were so lovingly recorded. The charged weight of Itene, o miei sospiri rekindles these considerations, mixing “bitter weeping” with “loving song” in particularly adroit handling from the Hilliards. O dolorosa gioia falls into the same category of “painful joy,” a core theme of Book Five that finds further traction in Se vi duol il mio duolo. In both of these, the pathos of the text comes through tactfully. Death is another trope, as inescapable in the music as it is in us. From the heartfelt appeal of Occhi del mio cor vita (“Eyes, life of my heart”) and the lovesick resignation of Languisce al fin (“He who parts from his life languishes at last”) to the lachrymose accents of O tenebroso giorno (“O darkest day”), the music is practically dripping with it. Yet not all is so morose in this landscape, for there are also the flora of Felicissimo sonno, a heartfelt appeal to dreams as living threads to a love that cannot flourish in waking, and the intoxications of Correte, amanti, a prova (“Vie, lovers, in speed”) to soothe our weary countenances, to say nothing of the optimism that bids us a fond farewell in T’amo, mia vita (“I love you, my life”).

A small handful of these 21 madrigals stands out. The snaking turns of Mercè grido piangendo (“Have pity on me! I cry weeping”) showcase the coolness of the Hilliard’s peerless blend to the utmost, while the prototypically Gesualdan Tu m’uccidi, o crudele (“You are killing me, o cruel woman”) pulls out all the stops in its affective toolkit, achieving moments of sublime light. Finally, Se tu fuggi, io non resto, with its fluttering vowels and tight syncopations breathes with expert realization, even as its narrative voice bids us leave on the wings of cruelty.

Due to the subject matter and sheer variety of invention, and despite the pitch-perfect performances, this is no mere soundtrack for an idle afternoon. It asks us to steep in its brew until we begin to take on a bit of its flavor. Those who find beauty in the Tenebrae may encounter discomfort in these secular woes. But if this discomfort has anything to teach us, it is that the act of living depends on that very thing.

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One thought on “Gesualdo: Quinto Libro di Madrigali (ECM New Series 2175)

  1. Haven’t heard this one although I have just been listening to the Hilliard Songbook of new music and wondered if you had reviewed it! Interesting comparison with the Tenebrae, but I suspect I would enjoy the woe too.

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