Here's a "concept CD" that would be at home in an Abnormal Psychology 201 class. Composer Carlo Gesualdo, poet Torquato Tasso, and mystic Maria Maddalena de'Pazzi all lived in Italy during the last part of the 16th century, and each of them had extreme emotional abnormalities that led to either violence or sequestration. They make rather compelling companions here, thanks to the imagination of Kairos, a German label, and avant-garde composer Salvatore Sciarrino, who was born in 1947.
Sciarrino transcribed several of Gesualdo's vocal and instrumental works and called his collection Le voci sottovetro, which means "voices behind glass." Madrigals for multiple voices are reconfigured for performance by a single mezzo-soprano and instruments – and not authentic ones, either! The voice is treated as another instrument; in fact, the texts are mostly "drowned" by the music, surfacing only occasionally to release a critical word or phrase. Instrumental works are rescored in a manner that Gesualdo couldn't have imagined, no matter how hot-headed he was. In the words of Sciarrino, the purpose of these transcriptions is not to surprise the listener but to illustrate his belief that "old music is changing and can be filled with new life when touched by the spirit of modernity." Although Mauricio Kagel has plowed this field before, Sciarrino makes something new and good out of Gesualdo's material. Le voci sottovetro is not for purists, however.
These four excerpts are interspersed with three actual letters by Torquato Tasso, beautifully read in the original Italian by Carlo Sini. In each letter, Tasso alludes to terrible physical and emotional torments. He writes about seeing the shadows of mice in the middle of his bedstead, and of a goblin who steals his food and personal effects. Even this mad letter-writing has a strongly poetical element.
The CD's highlight is the 26-minute Infinito nero (Eternal blackness). It is based on the words of Maria Maddalena de'Pazzi, the daughter of an aristocratic Florentine family. She began having visions ("ecstasies") as a teenager, and entered a convent. The ecstasies continued; in these frequent states, words flew out of her mouth so quickly that it took eight novices at a time to write them down. In her thirties, she became physically ill, the ecstasies ceased, and she spent the last five years of her life in great physical pain. She was beatified and eventually canonized.
Sciarrino's musical interpretation of her ecstasies is terrifically eerie. This is a performance piece in the tradition of Luciano Berio's Recital I for Cathy – in fact, Cathy Berberian would have loved this work. The singer alternates between stunned silence and logorrhea. The words are wild and disjointed, and there is talk of blood and crowns, and the invocation of the Holy Spirit. On occasion, the singer lapses into childish sing-song. Sciarrino's writing for the small instrumental ensemble is spare but penetrating; the flute is treated almost like a percussion instrument. It's a tour de force for Sonia Turchetta and the Ensemble Recherche, who already impressed me in the excerpts from Le voci sottovetro.
The CD is beautifully packaged in a book format, and there are generous booklet notes in German, English, and French. Tasso's letters have been translated into English, but Kairos unfortunately supplies only German translations of the other Italian texts.
Kairos is a new label to me. Other interesting looking releases include discs of music by Feldman, Nono, Scelsi, and Rihm.
Copyright © 2000, Raymond Tuttle