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.

Gesualdo: Tenebrae (ECM New Series 1422/23)

Carlo Gesualdo

The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Ashley Stafford countertenor
John Potter tenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Mark Padmore tenor
Paul Hillier baritone
David Beavan bass
Recorded March 1990, Douai Abbey, England
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Those who have read my first post on this site will know that my teens marked an important transition in my listening life through the discovery of classical music, in particular by way of ECM’s New Series. At the same time, I found my mind and ears opening to more esoteric forms of musical expression. This, coupled with my growing interest in Japan, led me to discover Haino Keiji, who after decades is still the reigning troubadour of the Japanese underground and whose discography numbers well over 100 albums. During my first trip to Japan in the summer of 1998, I had the honor of attending two of his performances in Tokyo. Haino often likes to spin a CD before he takes the stage, coaxing his audience into a certain mood that prepares them for what they are about to experience. And sure enough, before one of these shows, he was playing a recording of choral music by Carlo Gesualdo (ca. 1561-1613). I had one of the greatest meetings of my life when a contact arranged an informal interview with Haino after the second show. During that conversation, Haino professed his adoration for Gesualdo, which, if you’ve ever heard Haino’s music, may come as something of a surprise. He went on to tell me that, in his estimation, Gesualdo had explored almost every harmonic possibility available to him, and that in so doing had left behind a musical corpus that was in its own way “complete.” I was already quite familiar with the Hilliard Ensemble’s standard-setting ECM recording of the Tenebrae Responsoria and, upon my return from Japan, I went back to this recording with renewed interest, and discovered in it far more than I had ever dreamed. Years later, I find that its mysteries still evade me. By “mysteries” I do not mean to mythologize an already indisputably gorgeous exposition of polyphony, but to uphold it as a singular testament of a troubled soul.

The details of Gesualdo’s life are likely familiar to anyone who has delved even briefly into the biographies of the Renaissance’s most revered composers, for in 1590, the Neapolitan-born nobleman would stain his reputation with the blood of his first wife, who he had murdered along with her not-so-secret lover in the throes of what they believed to be a clandestine passion. According to some researchers, his second infant son—whose paternity Gesualdo may have doubted—also fell victim to his indignation. In spite of his heinous crime(s), Don Carlo’s noble rank as Prince of Venosa absolved him of any and all legal repercussions, though as a precaution he relocated from Naples to a private residence in Fererra, where he would meet and marry his second wife before returning to his castle. Their marriage was not a happy one, and Gesualdo was plagued by depression after the death of their son in 1600. Speculations abound as to the nature of this depression, though the evidence suggests he’d been confronting the specter of his past deeds. These responsories for Holy Week were to be his final compositions, and their Passion texts deal appropriately with crucifixion and betrayal, reflecting the inner turmoil of a mind in decline.

I somehow feel it would be a disservice to Gesualdo to single out any particular responsory over the rest, just as it would be impossible to single out any of the tears I imagine were shed in his lifetime. Every piece blossoms with the unstoppable force of nature, even as it questions that very nature for having driven a man to such extremes. The music is knotted with gut-wrenching and unbridled honesty. It is a wellspring of supplication into which one never dives and from which one never emerges, filling one nostril with the stench of death and the other with the perfume of remorse. It seems to puncture holes in the sky and thread through them a most painful confession that supersedes our peripheral constellations. The music also has a peculiar quality that I can only describe as an “ascendant descension,” as it always seems to reaching toward some semblance of God, even as it feels itself being pulled underground, so that by the end its identity has been torn and exists in neither place. This would seem to be the nature of Gesualdo’s repentance: one that dissolves rather than resolves. The tectonic plates of his chosen texts shift beneath their execution. Even in the greatest moments of upheaval they retain earthly shape. The final Miserere alternates between recitative polyphony and monophonic chant, animating the formless into the material. This pattern continues until the final chant disappears into the darkness: a star that burned out millennia ago, but which only now blinks from the sky unnoticed.

It’s difficult to imagine the Hilliard Ensemble sounding better than they do here in their duly magnified incarnation. The addition of Ashley Stafford broadens the already heavenly palette of David James, and both of them form the shining sun in the center of this choral zodiac. The performances are replete with unpredictable key changes, rhythmic anomalies, and luscious morphological details, so that every word seems its own composition, bound to its neighbors by a narrative that may only be divinely understood.

Just last night I was present at a live performance by Pomerium in the beautiful acoustics of St. Patrick – St. Anthony Church in Hartford, Connecticut, where they sang two of the Gesualdo responsories in a program of carefully chosen mannerist music. Finally hearing Gesualdo live brought a whole new understanding of the tortured drama that binds them. Like the Hilliards, Pomerium’s conductor Alexander Blachly has been a tireless champion of music that is both well established in the repertoire and that which begs exposure. If anything, his fantastic ensemble taught me one thing: music from even the most despicable circumstances can indeed transcend those circumstances through each new listener. The power of collective musical ablution may have no equivalent, but in this recording we get to experience just that in solitude.

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