Published in 1611 one year after Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine, Carlo Gesualdo’s Sesto Libro di Madrigali offers a strikingly different reflection of Italian music as the Renaissance era evolved into the Baroque. The emotional charge and intensity of the texts for Gesualdo’s madrigals, allied to a complex music involving chromaticisms and dissonances, helped create a collection that has intrigued, delighted and puzzled its listeners from the point of its publication on to our own days.
To offer a faithful interpretation of these five-part madrigals from the Sesto Libro (no less a musical colossus as Igor Stravinsky called them “23 canapés of caviar”) in modern times requires musicians of great skill and experience, voices of beauty and clarity, and a sense of musical direction between the singers which is united and consistent.
La Compagnia del Madrigale fulfils all these conditions (and expectations) on their new Glossa recording. Though recently created as a group, the ensemble of eight voices numbers singers with dedication and passion, with soprano Rossana Bertini, tenor Giuseppe Maletto and bass Daniele Carnovich being amongst its founding members – all singers with an estimable “track record” in such music as this. These are names to be found on plenty of recordings by groups such as Concerto Italiano and La Venexiana; they are musicians who have performed extensively as soloists. Their passion for the music of Carlo Gesualdo can be clearly heard on this new recording.
To understand more about what drives La Compagnia del Madrigale, Daniele Carnovich and Giuseppe Maletto were asked to share their views on approaching the Sesto Libro di Madrigali by Carlo Gesualdo, the Prince of Venosa.
What is your interest in performing madrigal repertoire today with La Compagnia del Madrigale?
DANIELE CARNOVICH: Polyphony has always been the musical genre which I most have liked performing both out of personal interest and as a result of my own particular vocal characteristics; and within vocal polyphony, the madrigal represents the most refined, the most poetical, and arguably the most intense, aspect. The strong link between the music and the text has always been an abiding source of stimulation for greater and lesser composers alike, allowing them to specialize in and constantly improve upon the madrigal style to the point of ending up writing music at the highest level of expressivity.
With my own personal interest in singing madrigals, it has always been a key objective for me to search for the greatest expressivity, in both the words and the music, within a sense of the utmost respect for both these disciplines and – possibly – of what one imagines to be the composer’s intentions. Having been singing madrigals from this perspective for more than twenty years, I can say that La Compagnia del Madrigale today represents for me the group which most successfully enshrines these objectives, as a consequence of the consistency fully shared by its singers in what they set out to do. I would add here also that the vocal blend of the CDM seems to me to be an excellent one, the result of individual colours of great beauty merging and joining together all within a common vision.
How do you feel that the performance and interpretation of Italian madrigals has developed in the last two decades?
GIUSEPPE MALETTO: Some twenty years ago when Italian ensembles arrived on the musical scene, madrigal interpretation took, without a shadow of a doubt, a turn for the better. It brought a new focus as regards the handling of the text, although this wasn’t free from excesses, however. Compared to previous experiences that we have had individually, CDM is trying to look for the most detailed and thorough reading possible, not just in terms of the text but with the structure and the musical discourse as well. The principal innovation, perhaps, is that there is no actual conductor in this group and, as a consequence, the majority of the decisions are taken collectively. In this way the implication in the group of each member is greater than will have been the case before.
Beyond that this is a tricky question to answer in that ensembles here which have devoted themselves to the madrigal repertory in a serious way – but moreover with a sense of continuity – have been small in number. I don’t think that it is possible to identify a clear interpretative direction going on in the field of the Italian madrigal, but what I do detect is a growing tendency – and, alas, this is all too common throughout early music performance – to head off in the search for the easy but superficial emotional effect. The results can be spectacular but lacking in content, at the cost of proper investigation and going into the music deeply.
Why did you decide to prepare a new edition of the Sesto Libro of Gesualdo before performing it for this recording?
GM: There were a number of reasons for this. In the first place – given that the time available for rehearsals and for recordings is always very limited – I wanted to be able to give my colleagues a working score which provided as few reading problems as possible. 21 of the 23 madrigals in the book are written in chiavette, that is to say, in a combination of clefs which anticipate a rendering with a lower pitch than that which is written. Such a practice, which was very common in the Renaissance, can today end up being somewhat uncomfortable for all concerned. Therefore, transcribing the madrigals and transposing them to a more comfortable pitch has resulted in eliminating such drawbacks.
Secondly, the act of rewriting these madrigals part by part, placing the texts in line with the correct syllabic divisions, has allowed us to develop a considered view about the process of composition, by analyzing the individual pieces in a greater depth.
And finally, but by no means the least important reason: the current modern edition, published in 1957, was based on a single source. In order to make our own edition, in contrast, we have turned to three different sources, and the comparison between the three has helped us to clarify certain uncertain issues. In addition it should be said that the 1957 edition contains a series of errors, notably one very striking mistake, a mistake which has been made by all the groups which have recorded the Sesto Libro before.
What do you feel are the differences between Gesualdo’s style and approach with the Sesto Libro as compared to his previous books?
GM: Without any doubt, I would say that that compared to his previous books of madrigals, Gesualdo’s Sesto Libro marks a great step forwards. In it he frees himself from a certain heaviness which had sometimes characterized the polyphonic thread in earlier compositions. The writing is now always very fluid and effective, and the images and Affekts demanded by the text are more intense. Even in those songs of a joyful nature, an emotion never entirely congenial for Gesualdo, there is an elegance and fluidity not previously attained by him.
For this recording, the ensemble has used eight singers for the 23 pieces. How did this allow you to express Gesualdo’s music as you wanted (rather than, for example, having only five singers)?
DC: So as to avoid that these “23 canapés of caviar” ended up being boring or tiresome, we looked for the greatest possible variety of vocal colours, involving the eight singers of the CDM in the recording. We decided upon the individual makeup for each madrigal after having studied, probed and verified which would be the most suitable combination of the voices, and doing this in a way which was in agreement both with the meaning of the texts and with the musical characteristics suggested by Gesualdo.
GM: The vocal quintet in madrigals of Gesualdo is almost always Soprano-Alto-Tenor-Tenor-Bass. In some cases however this is SSATB, and for that reason alone we would need at least six singers. However, we have wanted to differentiate clearly certain madrigals, doing this by entrusting the top line to a darker soprano voice. In a couple of cases, additionally, and by making use of a lower pitch, we have employed a soprano-less quintet, as in Alto-Tenor-Tenor-Baritone-Bass.
You made the recording in the church in Roletto. What are the attractions for you with this recording location and its acoustic?
DC: The church in Roletto is located on a small hill, sufficiently far from the principal regional road networks to provide us a notable lack of noise. Without such conditions it would be impossible to make a recording. What makes us prefer this church to other possible options is, however, its acoustic. This church possesses a perfect acoustic for musical ensembles of a small size and above all for a capella polyphony, with just the right degree of softness to make the sound of the group as compact as possible, and at the same time with the right level of transparency allowing one to bring out the movements of the individual voices. (Moreover, experience gained from dozens of recordings previously made in this church, allows us quickly to identify the best spatial layout for the singers and for the microphones, so as to be able to secure the best recorded sound; that allows for a considerable saving in time from a working point of view, avoiding multiple takes each time that the precise configuration of the singing ensemble alters.)
What range of emotions does the Sesto Libro of Gesualdo call for?
DC: An initial and cursory reading of the Sesto Libro might well offer a somewhat gloomy and bleak impression, leaving one with the sensation of a certain monochrome atmosphere pervading the 23 madrigals. That, in fact, is not the case. After we had made a more detailed study of the piece we noticed how each madrigal embraced a whole microcosm of signals, indications and strategic devices with the purpose of depicting a very broad range of states of mind and emotions. Of course, recurring themes about death, anguish and torment, so loved by Gesualdo, are present, which he depicts using the most weight and the least transparent colours from his palette. But there are frequent references also to “gioia” (delight or joy), “vitali sguardi” (vital glances), “fanciulle ridenti e belli” (beautiful smiling girls), the vision of whom awakens “la gioia mia, gioisce il mondo” (my happiness and the world rejoices), “e ’l triste pianto omai si cangi in dolce e lieto canso” (and let sad weeping now be changed to sweet and happy singing). These Affekts are portrayed by Gesualdo with clear and brilliant strokes which effectively and emotionally involve both the interpreter at the point of performing them through singing, and the listener as well. As Marco Bizzarini so well captured in his splendid booklet article for the CD, all this cannot be the fruit of a twisted and fastidious mind.
In its musical writing, in its choice of texts, what picture is conjured up of the personality of Carlo Gesualdo at this time?
GM: With his choice of texts for the Sesto Libro Gesualdo does not turn to the leading poets of his time: all these texts are anonymous and it is thought that he himself could have written them. Despite not being possessed of great poetic qualities, the texts are fully practical and efficient for Gesualdo’s particular style and serve as a basis for his expressive boldness. The Sesto Libro is a work of an astonishing clarity and integrity, and not the result of the ravings of a madman broken down by remorse, as is sometimes said of him. Certainly, his inspiration is frequently ridden with torment and the majority of the madrigals are infused with a dark character, without that certain brightness that one might expect from a man from the south. This should not be seen as a defect, however; it represents a voluntary and coherent search for inspiration, looking towards the dark side of the human soul. The “amorous torments’ in Gesualdo’s madrigals are relived in the music like as in a dream (or in a nightmare according to the case) and, in my opinion, it is precisely in this dreamlike and nocturnal component, where the charm of the music resides, a perfect complement to the representation of the radiant, joyous and sensual love of Marenzio, or to the spiritualized form found in Monteverdi.
MARK WIGGINS © 2012 Note 1 Music / Glossa Music photos © Simone Bartoli