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 Recording of the Week  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!

James Wood
James Wood

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

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Gesualdo: Madrigali libro sesto, 1611

La Compagnia del Madrigale

Available Formats: MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC