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Culture Catch, January 2012

Culture Catch Best of 2011: #23

Music of incredible harmonic intensity and originality, given eminently precise and interpretively apt performances. Another commendable series on Naxos. © 2012 Culture Catch See complete list

Fabrice Fitch
Gramophone, November 2011

More exhilarating despair from music’s most famous murderer

With his third book of madrigals, the defining features of Gesualdo’s style appear in earnest, and Delitiæ Musicæ’s complete survey seems to me also to step up a gear. The balance between high and lower voices is better negotiated, and the distracting interventions of the ensemble’s continuo player are reined in.

…at their best these are distinctive and (dare one say it of such a composer) affectionate performances: the habit of lingering over dissonances delivers some impressive moments, where the homogeneity becomes a real asset… A couple of lighthearted canzonets provide light relief at the close. Let’s hope that this series continues its upward trajectory.

Catherine Moore
American Record Guide, November 2011

I wonder what a Delitiae Musicae rehearsal is like. By whatever means they come to their interpretive decisions, the result is endlessly varied and convincing.

Two of the ways the all-male ensemble Delitiae Musicae create very different effects are their extensive color palette and their ability to tighten or loosen the way the five voices are bound together. In the opening madrigal ‘Voi Volete Ch’Io Mora’ an initial spookiness…as voices attack then fade, like spirits afraid to come out from behind a veil. Then, on the word “crudel”, the spirits come forward, their conviction and urgency driving fear away. In ‘Ahi, Dispietata E Cruda’ the voices go their separate ways, each weeping alone, fading away at the end of each section as they lose heart and voice together.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Ralph Moore
MusicWeb International, September 2011

This beautifully presented disc is the third in a sequence of six covering Gesualdo’s entire output of madrigals and secular works. The first two issues attracted an enthusiastic critical reception; this third is of particular interest in that it marks the turning point in Gesualdo’s musical idiom from a more conventional style to that for which he is most celebrated: arresting dissonances, a marked intensity, concision and directness of address to create pathos and drama. In other words, as one reviewer elsewhere aptly puts it, “seriously weird”.

Published in 1595, these madrigals are also important and unusual in that they constitute perhaps the first example of output by an artist who, being an aristocrat himself, was free from the constraints of patronage and could exercise his artistic autonomy to ignore the criteria for approval and success. Not only could he introduce whatever innovations he chose into his musical language but he could also set texts by whomever he pleased. Indeed, he rejected verse regularly and humbly submitted to him by Torquato Tasso in favour of lesser or even anonymous poets. He was thus, as Longhini suggests, possibly “the first composer in history to have had the luxury of pursuing art for art’s sake.”

The scandalous and turbulent events of his discovering and murdering his wife and lover in flagrante delicto are too well known to bear repetition (but see); the evidence of Gesualdo’s tortured contrition is all over the music which is markedly darker and more obsessive than in Book Two. He was legally immune from prosecution on the grounds that he was both a nobleman and merely a perpetrator of “crimes of honour”, but threats of revenge and general condemnation dogged him. The marks made on his mental health and his subsequent descent into chronic depression are typified in his most famous madrigal “Ancidetemi pur, grieve martiri” (“Do not kill me, grievous suffering”). Key emotive words and phrases such as “martire”, “dolore” and “tormento” and “questa misera vita” (“this wretched life of mine”) are repeatedly emphasised by their stark original musical treatment. For once, the tired banalities of the language of courtly love have their roots in real, rather than feigned or formulaic, suffering. Gesulado had apparently sincerely loved his wife, his cousin whom he had known since childhood, and was equally sincerely conscience-stricken by the extraordinary violence of his vengeance upon her and Fabrizio Carafa.

The singing here is of a high order: intonation is impeccable and the blend of voices agreeably smooth. The counter-tenors are free of squall or hoot and the bass does not groan. Seven tracks, including the two concluding bonus items, feature an accompaniment by a “clavicembalo”—a harpsichord to you and me. Otherwise the emphasis is upon a capella purity. The microphone placement in this recording is very close to the singers but that, if anything, reveals how precise and subtly graded their singing is. There is still a wide spread of sound, allowing you to hear individual lines clearly. The vocal colouring and shading of dynamics are exquisite: when they sing “gli estremi miei sospiri”. Their voices really do sigh and die. Notes are held steadily with minimal vibrato or none at all. Pauses and rubato are employed judiciously and effectively without obviousness. The sound of the Veronese church location is warm and full yet the singers’ diction is crystal clear—nothing like native Italians in such music with undistorted vowels, crisp consonants and neatly trilled Rs. The freedom and invention of Gesualdo’s chromatic harmonies and rhythms are sometimes startling. Listening to a whole hour of such unvaryingly sombre and self-pitying music can be wearing, but that may be addressed by an appreciation of the vitality and variety of the singing of Delitiæ Musicæ. A more practical solution to potential overload is to listen to no more than twenty pieces at a sitting.

There are two bonus tracks: a pair of “canzonette” published in 1618 to complete the survey of the Gesualdo canon.

The elegant booklet includes a full, informative and scholarly essay by editor, conductor and producer Marco Longhini, biographies, Italian texts and English translations. The cover is graced by tastefully selected artwork. This all serves to continue a very welcome pattern. This series clearly marks a highpoint in the Naxos Early Music catalogue.

Mark Sealey
MusicWeb International, August 2011

This is the third release in a prize of a series of the madrigals by the enigmatic (and mercifully not (yet) cult) composer, Carlo Gesualdo. The first and second CDs from Naxos were favourably received on MusicWeb. So is this.

Gesualdo moved slowly but unmistakably from the conventional to the almost experimental. His later madrigals were certainly chromatic—famously dissonant at times. This third volume was published in Ferrara in 1595 by Vittorio Baldini, and reprinted three more times before 1619 in Venice. It is full of what would be surprises, if you didn’t know the composer and which still shock, if you do. The texts were chosen for their impact, their images, and their ability to sustain such musical sentiments and experiences as tension, contrast, jolts from the norm and perverse or contrary reaction.

They’re not gratuitously or spuriously eccentric, though. There is a logic to the way in which the emotion—usually human love and desire—is portrayed. Just what these are emotions that must be acknowledged rather than acquiesced in. Gesualdo is entering the real world of love, hurt, longing, regret. He’s not reproducing a formulaic analogue thereof. This is in large part because Gesualdo, beholden to no-one because of his social and economic status, was able to choose whose poetry he wanted; not that imposed by the whims of a patron. Guarini and Arlotti figure prominently as poets; most of the rest of the twenty madrigals are anonymous. There are two tracks of works from the few secular pieces not contained in the six books of madrigals by Gesualdo which this series will eventually comprise.

Significantly, the madrigals were also published in partitura (as scores) so that such impact could be accentuated by their study. Further, it’s to the advantage of listener, performer and composer that such close attention is paid to Gesualdo’s music in this way: for all that he was concerned more in this third book with the pure sound of the marriage of text and song, they are so dense, intense and studied (all good qualities) that they truly repay repeated close listening. Something new, delightful, exciting and fresh will emerge each time.

Performers of this music thus have a challenge: do they present the music ‘straight’ with little or no expression? This would in the first place allow its strong characteristics to emerge with slightly different emphases each time and in the second avoid imposing imagined or (worse) modern sensibilities on what must have been an extraordinary aural experience at the end of the sixteenth century. Then, do they infuse it with their own studied conclusions about the stretched tempi, the pauses, the chromaticism, the dwelling on certain phrases, the tortured combinations of notes, the rich yet almost self-conscious use of the basso profundo and counter-tenor voices?

Delitiae Musicae under the expert direction of Marco Longhini have obviously thought about this very carefully. Blander would not be the way to describe some of the other versions of this collection which are availabl…veer without doubt towards the utterly expressive. This, just as they did in the earlier volumes of this highly collectible series from Naxos.

Importantly, their delivery decidedly avoids the mannered or indulgent. At first hearing the way they hold some notes, take a generally slow yet neither sedate nor muddy pace, and enunciate certain key syllables—especially at the end of lines—will probably pull you up short. But repeated listenings only serve to reveal the depth and the beauty of Gesualdo’s achievement. Your attention is folded back into the text and the melodic development, the musical texture and power of the combination of these that Gesualdo has achieved so thoroughly, yet seemingly so effortlessly.

Also noteworthy is the variety that Gesualdo achieved—for all his dwelling on similar topics. The sequence of the madrigals as sung here is full of variety. Yet the singers plant their stamp, their professionalism, technical aplomb, expressiveness and gentle persuasion as to just how good this music is onto each madrigal in turn.

The acoustic is close and warm, intense and totally amenable to the need that we focus our full attention on every nuance, syllable and musical shade. The short booklet is informative and contains background, details of the performers as well as the texts in Italian and English translation.

Jeff Simon
The Buffalo News, July 2011

The annals of artistic sublimity aren’t exactly bursting with scandalous tales of murder. In the case of the great and hugely influential painter Caravaggio, there is even a tenuous relationship between the revolutionary art and the tempestuous proletarian life of the artist. In the case of Carlo Gesualdo de Venosa, the extraordinary harmonic daring and beauty of the music might seem the very opposite of the scandalous life of the wealthy prince who had his wife and her lover murdered in their bed after being caught in flagrante delicto. Marco Longhini, who conducted this gorgeous disc of Gesualdo’s Madrigals Book 3 writes in the notes that the general view of society at the time was “that a love strong enough to overcome social mores and ultimately to be worth dying for, had greater moral value than did the Gesualdo family honor.” Of the dark and violent mood of the second part of Book Three, Longhini says “the music that had formerly made him a happy, charming man was now an outlet for his new state of mind, his genuine suffering and the repressed feelings that had exploded into bloodshed.” Is it possible that Gesualdo’s revolutionary dissonance and daring and violent life were inseparable? A grim thought, but the music, and the performance here, are exquisite.

Matthew Martinez, July 2011

“Ah, why is beauty a flower that charms the eye but pains the heart?” If one replaces “eye” with “ear” you have a perfect description of Gesualdo’s Third Book of Madrigals as recorded here by Delitiae Musicae. This verse from track number 14, “Crudelissima doglia” (Cruelest sorrow), laments an unrequited love and the resulting pain. The twenty madrigals on this disc (the last two tracks are bonuses), were composed at a dark time in the Italian prince-composer’s life. Having discovered his dear wife’s infidelity, Gesualdo murdered her out of rage. While the crime was legally considered to be one of “honor” due to his wife’s betrayal, the composer felt the need to express his very real and carnal feelings of anger and sorrow in his music.

In fact, there is a brilliant narrative arc to the entire book that is portrayed on this disc. Over the twenty madrigals we see a lover who pines for the target of his affections, is briefly accepted by his love and joyous (tracks 10–13), only to be shortly thereafter spurned and then plunged into an even deeper depth of anguish. Such tales are often the stuff of melodramatic fancy, but in this case we are presented with a real-life case in Gesualdo. It is safe to say that the musical world is the beneficiary of the composer’s torment as these unique and vivid compositions are stunningly beautiful.

In lesser-skilled hands, this music would be treacherous. It is full of subtle nuance, dramatic work coloring and temporal spaciousness, to say nothing of the vocal challenges. Delitiae Musicae, under the direction of Marco Longhini, add to their impressive catalogue of recordings and perform splendidly. In fact, the group’s musicality and intimacy of ensemble is nothing short of breathtaking. Entrances are flawless and intonation impeccable. The pieces often have rhythmless moments that are suspended in time and Delitiae Musicae achieves maximum effect in these musical canvases without a shred of artifice. Take for example track eight, “Sospirava il mio core” (My heart was sighing), in which there is a detectable pulse that fades into nothingness on the phrase “L’anima spiro!” (I give up my soul). It is a stunning and effective transition to a substantial silence leading to the second half of the song.

Such musical sensitivity matters for very little without skilled vocalists, and every member of the ensemble is outstanding. Countertenor Alessandro Carmignani sings with remarkable control. His sound is always beautiful, with a bit of cover. This obscures the intonation very slightly on cadences with his fellow singers who sing with a bit more brightness of vowel, but it is still a remarkable and pleasing instrument. The decays, glissandi and messa di voce effects are remarkably tasteful and effective. The group includes harpsichordist Carmen Leoni on seven tracks in an effective and seamless accompaniment that only adds to the group’s security of ensemble.

There is a wonderful intimacy and immediacy to this recording that reveals the vocal details and diction. The natural reverberation from the church is subtle and not at all boomy. The booklet contains a wonderful historic and musical essay by Marco Longhini as well as a promise for a recording of the fourth book of madrigals by the same forces. Given this recording’s all around excellence, it is well worth anticipating.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, July 2011

The Third book of Madrigals was published in 1595, ostensibly without Carlo Gesualdo’s permission, as a member of the nobility ‘working’ as a composer would have been unthinkable. This, being the fifth disc I have reviewed in the complete cycle, affords a short historic recap pointing to our uncertainty how Gesualdo’s musical knowledge came about, but the books of madrigals brought him such attention from fellow musicians that he was defined as a major composer in their midst. This Third book contains twenty pieces full of the lachrymose that had gained popularity at the time, though it could also reflect his thoughts on the discovery of his wife’s infidelity. As we progress the music becomes increasingly angry and with unusual severity. Research has produced likely sources of the texts, but Gesualdo wanted to use lesser poets so that they would never become known. All are written in four parts apart from the final Donna se m’ancidete where five are used. Here containing seven male voices, the Italian-based group, Delitiae Musicae, are much dependent on the highly distinctive voice of the countertenor, Alessandro Carmignani, who sings almost throughout. Conducted by Marco Longhini, the disc ends with two vocal canzonettas, so that with the upcoming final disc, we will have all of the known secular scores of Gesualdo. As with previous volumes the voices are recorded close in a church acoustic.

Brian Wilson Download Roundup
MusicWeb International, June 2011

The recordings of Monteverdi’s Madrigals which Delitiæ Musicæ made for Naxos were a somewhat variable feast. Likewise in Gesualdo: Johan van Veen was impressed by their singing in Book I, but questioned some of their practices…Mark Sealey was more impressed with Book II …and it seems that Naxos are testing the water with (initially) a download-only recording of the Third Book.

My view of Book III tends more towards MS’s opinion than JV’s. This was an age when High Renaissance style gave way to Mannerism in art, and Gesualdo’s music shares many of its exaggerated characteristic with that style. I enjoyed Delitiæ’s rather mannered singing of Gesualdo, therefore, more than I did their Monteverdi. The themes and even some of the texts will be familiar from Monteverdi and other madrigal composers, but the heated and intense manner is a speciality of Gesualdo’s sacred and secular music. You may even find it better to ration your listening—an hour or so of Gesualdo at a time may be too intense.

There’s no booklet with texts, as there was with Book I, which is a shame, but the diction is good enough throughout to make out the words, which can be found online…as can some notes on the music—here. The back cover which comes with the download suggests that a CD version is planned [for release July 2011]. I very much hope that the CD appears soon in order to reach the wider audience of those who resist downloading. This is, as MS suggested, even more adventurous music than that of the first two books and the performances are even more suited to it. Stream from the Naxos Music Library first if you can; otherwise I recommend starting with Book III rather than Book I.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group