Carlo Gesualdo: Madrigals Books 5 and 6
Delitiae Musicae, Marco Longhini – cond.
This 3-CD set brings to a close Delitiae Musicae’s cycle of Gesualdo Madrigals for the Naxos label. Standards have been consistently high throughout the series, and his last volume is no exception. Italian singers, performing in their native tongue, ensure that the performances are always led by the words, and the discursive, and occasionally declamatory, settings find the ideal balance here between music and text.
By this late stage in the Gesualdo’s career, the harmonies have become truly strange. Or rather, unpredictable changes of harmony and inscrutable dissonances appear in the textures with alarming regularity. Where other choirs may be tempted to highlight these incongruities, Delitae Musicae and conductor Marco Longhini instead integrate them into otherwise flowing and lyrical readings. The style of performance here would equally suit the madrigals of Monteverdi, with flowing lines, supple phrasing and a keen focus throughout on beauty of tone. This means that when the strange harmonies do appear, they are even more disconcerting, and being fully integrated into the otherwise consonant textures, they imbue the entire works with their strangeness.
Tempos are slow in many cases, and dynamics are often subdued. The singers rarely attack the consonants, allowing a more open and vowel-led sound to result. Even the heavily-rolled ‘r’s help the music to flow. The all-male ensemble sings at a slightly lower pitch than on some other recordings, and the bass, Walter Testolin, occasionally has to plumb the depths. Fortunately, his lower notes are all secure, and the rich, bronzed tone he has in every register is just as evident here.
The recording was made at Chiesa di Santa Maria Maddalena, Novaglie, Verona. The acoustic is clearly that of a church, but the singers are miked close, so the result is warmth rather than resonance. One disadvantage of this setup is that the words are difficult to make out. It is clear from the performance style that the words are leading the music, especially in the passages where the singers drain the tone from their voices to create almost a speaking effect, but even here the individual lines of text are difficult to make out.
Perhaps Gesualdo himself should take some measure of blame for this. It is hardly the worst thing he ever did, but in his pursuit of radical harmonic and contrapuntal effects, he often obscures the words with the complexities that he creates. Delitiae Musicae rarely gives the music more clarity than it seems to need. There are many occasions where the singers all meet in the mid-register, all doing different things and without any clear hierarchy. In this reading, the resulting disorder is allowed to stand, giving all the more contrast between these sections and the more open and homophonic passages that intersperse them.
But above all else, it is the grace and elegance of these readings that make them stand out. Gesualdo is all too often presented as a composer of music that is completely different from anything of his period. That often means heavier textures and a more aggressive approach. But Delitiae Musicae demonstrates that this is undoubtedly music of the early 17th century. These madrigals don’t need the singers’ help to sound distinctive, so it is great to hear a performance that celebrates their sheer musicality instead.