Presto News - 4th March 2013
Gesualdo - Sacred and Secular
Two discs by the same composer this week, one sacred and one secular – showcasing the troubled genius of the Renaissance aristocrat Carlo Gesualdo, who died four hundred years ago this year in 1613. Although his music shows exceptional vision and originality, it is often overshadowed by his personal life, which was (to say the least) dramatic – upon catching his wife and her lover in bed one day, Gesualdo murdered them both and put the bodies on display in front of his palace. This has, not surprisingly, dominated his reputation ever since!
Gesualdo was part of a group of Neapolitan composers who experimented with extending the Renaissance tonality, with results that – as can be heard in both this week’s discs – sound extreme even to 21st-century ears. Much has been written about the connection between this anguished, dissonant soundworld and Gesualdo’s tormented personality; but as with similarly controversial figures, it’s impossible to say how far the music reflects the man.
Gesualdo was a deeply religious man, and among his sacred works are three books of motets, of which the second was until recently tantalisingly unperformable, due to the tragic loss of two of the parts. Conductor and musicologist James Wood has performed nothing short of a musical Resurrection for the first of this week’s discs – reconstructing the missing parts, and enabling these works to be heard as they might have sounded in 1603. Completing the “trilogy” of motet collections was, as Wood freely admits, a monumental task – but what a reward to be able finally to bring them to life!
For anyone new to Gesualdo, the motets are an excellent place to start. They are slightly tamer in style than the madrigals, and I think the VocalConsort Berlin have also made a conscious decision to take to heart the advice in Wood’s notes – he warns against letting the sensationalised view of Gesualdo colour one’s interpretation of his music. Thus, rather than over-acting at the moments of dramatic harmonic intensity (and there are many!), they adopt a “less-is-more” attitude that focuses on the bigger picture and lets some of the juicy dissonances almost slip under the radar. It’s a refreshingly mature approach which suits the sacred nature of the texts very well.
All vocal music depends, of course, on accurate intonation to be convincing, but this is particularly true of Gesualdo’s harmonically adventurous works. Both this week’s ensembles (The VocalConsort Berlin for the motets, and the Compagnia del Madrigale on the second disc) duly provide flawless renditions, with even the most strained and painful of chord progressions absolutely clear to the ear.
Indeed, if Wood’s reconstructed motets are a relatively mild introduction to Gesualdo, then in the Sixth Book of Madrigals, flamboyantly performed by the Compagnia del Madrigale, we really get the full force of his imagination. These works sound alien even to modern ears, so the effect over four hundred years ago must have been incredible. The parts continually twist and contort themselves in strange and unfamiliar ways – disorientating, yes, but absolutely gripping at the same time!
The texts of these secular works are certainly not the jolly, innuendo-laden flirtations that English madrigals might bring to mind; they are lachrymose, sometimes narcissistic, bewailings of romantic misfortune, and although they are all love poems, well over half of them make reference to death. The relish with which Gesualdo responds to his morbid subject matter in music is clear (listen to just the first two chords of No. 17, “Moro, lasso”!).
It would be an over-simplification to summarise these two discs as Gesualdo with his hair up and down respectively; nevertheless, the comparison between the more restrained sacred music and the extrovert secular works (with performances in each case tailored to match) is both interesting and fascinating to hear, and both discs come highly recommended!
Gesualdo: Sacrae Cantiones, Liber Secundus, a6 e a7, 1603
VocalConsort Berlin, James Wood
Gesualdo: Madrigali libro sesto, 1611
La Compagnia del Madrigale
On the back of Wolfgang Sawallisch last week we have further sad news to report this week in the form of the death of the US pianist Van Cliburn, who died last Wednesday at his Texas home following a battle with bone cancer.
Van Cliburn shot to fame in 1958 when he won the first ever International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at the age of just 23. Coming at the height of the Cold War, just months after the Soviets had embarrassed the US with their successful launch of Sputnik, the US seized the opportunity to celebrate his success, welcoming him home to New York with a ticker tape parade (a first for a classical musician) and a cover on Time magazine with the headline “The Texan who conquered Russia”.
However, the power of his music-making was such that he was loved worldwide, especially in Russia, and he brought real unity between the two nations at a time of otherwise strong rivalry.
He made a number of recordings which by coincidence have recently been beautifully repacked by RCA, complete with a hard back booklet containing all the original covers and as well as a new booklet note - a fitting tribute indeed for a truly inspirational musician.
Van Cliburn: The Complete Album Collection
28CDs and 1 DVD
Van Cliburn (piano)
Released on the RCA Red Seal label, this stunning budget-priced boxset brings together for the first time all the live and studio recordings of legendary pianist Harvey Lavan ‘Van’ Cliburn - from his 1958 debut recordings of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninov’s No. 3 to his personal selections of favourite Chopin, Brahms and Debussy pieces, the popular album of Favourite Encores, to his last recording for RCA with Brahms pieces, released in 1977. Also contains a CD with selections from his performances in Moscow in 1972, as well as the DVD “Van Cliburn, Concert Pianist”, a film by Peter Rosen.
David Smith - firstname.lastname@example.org
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