This splendid three-CD set is the fifth and last in the series on Naxos by Delitiæ Musicæ under Marco Longhini of all the madrigals by Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613). Volume 1 (Book 1: Naxos 8.570548) was very positively received here when it first appeared only three years ago. Since then the cycle has gone from strength to strength. This is no exception.
The 44 madrigals from the final two fifth and sixth, "twin", books are distributed (18, 15, 11) across three CDs of 74, 67 and 41 minutes in length respectively. They cover familiar ground – the "stronger" emotions of love (fulfilled and otherwise), all manner of longing, death and sadness, as well as joy and elation. Published in 1611, and quickly reprinted several times after Gesualdo's death two years later, the Books are unusual in that they explore and adopt techniques and styles which were regarded as eccentric by the composer's contemporaries – not least for their famous dissonances, which one hears aplenty throughout… the simmeringly morbid "Mercè, grido piangendo" [CD.1 tr. 11] is a striking example; so are passages from Chiaro risplender suole [CD.2 tr.8]. Even when familiar with it, this aspect of Gesualdo is still striking. Yet the singers here apply no emphasis; its expressivity is like any other to them.
One is tempted to look to the songs of Wagner, Mahler and even the early twentieth century for such an uncompromising concentration and lugubrious marriage of tonality and text. One of the reasons was Gesualdo's aristocratic status: he needed to bow or listen to no employer. He was free to work in the way he wanted. Much had happened to Gesualdo since the publication in 1596 of his Fourth Book. From what we know of his biography, it's tempting to explain the emotions of these last two Books, which range from soft dourness to purely moribund, from mild hope to (both groundless and justified) ecstasy, in terms of Gesualdo's travels, increased popularity, infamy and – of course – developing experience of the world, loves, deaths; and of music.
Think too of the ways in which Shostakovich grew to be more and more obsessed with death and the extent to which his more intimate music, at least, reflected the distinctions and links between the personal and public rationales. Gesualdo's is an analogous concentration of thought, emotion and resulting creativity. If you're new to the fervor, heat and intensity of Gesualdo, you're likely to be shocked by the leaps and laments of many pieces here: Tu m'uccidi, o crudele [CD.1. tr.15], for instance, could be called almost pathological nowadays.
A balance by the performers is needed at all costs. They must have detachment to avoid self-indulgence; and vehemence to avoid channelling the music into what may be conventional Renaissance hyperbole for many listeners. This is exactly what Longhini achieves with his ensemble. They enter into the spirit of the texts (few are more than a dozen lines or so in length). Their style does not re-inforce an impression or expectation of stock reactions to thwarted love, momentary joy, longing (for death).
We have learnt to take these in our stride as conventional topoi; to think of them as little more than exaggerated responses to inevitable misfortune. Somewhat amazingly, the members of Delitiæ Musicæ sing not just as though they were hearing the poetry for the first time, still less as if contributing to a standard corner of the repertoire which everybody "understands" and subscribes to because they can imagine the sentiments. But their delivery has a delicacy of conviction and sane yet fervent ardor that enliven these feelings, paradoxes, hopes, regrets and trials. By not feeling the need to draw us into Gesualdo's world only in order to empathize with him, their delivery is immediate, almost violently communicative. Yet it's very precisely balanced. We are seeing Gesualdo's madrigals both as works of art and as stimulators, evocations, of equally violent emotions. In other words, the singers and Longhini (who co-prepared the Urtext for this cycle) try neither to conceal the conventions of the madrigal nor to under- or overplay the impact of its subject matter on listeners.
What's more, the performers here are fully aware that Gesualdo had – in these last two Books – arrived at new heights, not least in the ways in which he cemented music to text… less broad convention, more specific evolution of new musical ideas from specific text. The result is more sophisticated. But Delitiæ Musicæ have not drawn the teeth of the music or lessened its impact. They never intervene themselves to "explain" the music. It just flows. This is the essence of these performances' success. Much of the overlay of what may be, frankly, a somewhat alien idiom to modern century ears, is lost. It certainly does not interfere; and we respond to art songs as pure expressions of emotion through music. Surely this is what Gesualdo intended.
The two books were recorded in two different locations in gently resonant churches near Verona in northern Italy. These spacious yet strangely personal and intimate atmospheres suit the restrained delivery, unhurried tempi and immaculate articulation of Delitiæ Musicæ very well. The booklet is in the usual Naxos style and contains the texts in Italian and English. It's packed with relevant information, including a brief description of the performers, whose work is – rightly – described as "impassioned". This word is not to be misunderstood. The singing is of a controlled enthusiasm and as full of authority and stature as it is of delight or zeal. If you've been collecting the earlier volumes in this series, don't hesitate with this set. If you're new to the repertoire and/or want to explore a composer who's often more written about than listened to, this is a great place to start.
Copyright © 2013, Mark Sealey