08 Nov 2013

Exaudi: O tenebroso giorno — Gesualdo then and now

One year since the launch of their project to create a contemporary book of Italians madrigals, vocal ensemble Exaudi returned to the Wigmore Hall to present an intermingling of old and new madrigals which was typically inventive, virtuosic and compelling.

Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, was the warp between which the weft threads of modernism were woven. Madrigalist, mannerist and master of harmonic ingenuity, the patrician composer’s contributions to the genre are remarkable for their harmonic capriciousness and volatility. Much is often made of the fact that one can add ‘murderer’ to the alliterative inventory of the composer’s roles, his violent despatch of his faithless wife and her lover earning him notoriety in the annals of music history; and, while such vengeful acts were in fact common in Renaissance Italian courts — indeed, the contemporary code of honour practically demanded them — it is perhaps not too fanciful to imagine that something of Gesualdo’s brooding, melancholic temperament is evident in the turbulent harmonic daring of his madrigals.

It has been suggested that Gesualdo’s harmonic adventurousness was inspired by his visits to Ferrara from 1594, where he was able to experiment upon the archicembalo with six keyboards that had been constructed by the court maestro Nicola Vicentino. But, it is just as likely that overhearing the vocal ensemble that Vicentino had trained in secrecy, in order to put into practice his own experimental theories of music, was the major influence in the formation of Gesualdo’s idiosyncratic idiom.

Gesualdo3.gifCarlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa [Source: Wikipedia]

Writing of a new edition of the madrigals published in1962, the musicologist Denis Stevens declared, ‘Five fine soloists, each with perfect intonation, not too much vibrato, and a really controlled line, would bring … [the] splendid pieces in this book to life’. ‘Dolcissima mia vita’ (Sweetness life of mine) immediately asserted the composer’s highly personal vein of chromatic irregularity, and five members of Exaudi , although they took a few minutes to settle, certainly brought vitality to the contrapuntal lines, ‘Credete forse che’l bel foco ond’ardo’ (Can you believe the fire that now scorches me), triggered by a buoyant countertenor line sung by Tom Williams.

The sliding chromatic resolutions of ‘Deh, come invan sospiro’ (Ah! How I sigh in vain) demonstrated the composer’s skill in expressing the struggle between violent, conflicting emotions, while the closing repetitions of ‘divenga morte’ (life for me has become death) spanned a spectrum of colours and moods, both rich and shadowy. In ‘Tu piangi, o Filli mia’ (You weep, O my Phyllis), the five voices blended agreeably; in an energetic rendition, the strong communication between the members of the quintet was evident in the vivid sectional contrasts that were achieved.

Gesualdo’s almost hypersensitive response to lyric emotions is unfailingly astonishing, as the individual vocal lines veer in unexpected directions, the linear discourses producing a questing, searching mood as dissonances are suspended and resolutions delayed. In ‘Itene, o miei sospiri’ (Go now, o my sighs) the sheer force of the harmonic energy was remarkable, building from the initial direct command, ‘Itene’, to the rich contrapuntal interweaving of the climax, before the relaxation of the concluding homophonic thirds. The deep register of the opening of ‘O tenebroso giorno’ (O dark day) was forbiddingly sombre, before the more uplifting harmonies of ‘Quando lieto ritorno/ Farai dinanzi a quella/Che è più d’ogni altra bella’ (When will you happily/ return to that beauty’s side/ who is more beautiful than any other) created a flowing lightness. The voices negotiated the unusual, challenging intervals of the melodic lines with pinpoint accuracy, and the final phrase possessed a pure air of expansiveness: ‘Che con suoi sguardi morte e vita appaga?’ (whose gaze satisfies both death and life?’).

The rich open vowel sounds of ‘O dolorosa gioia’ (Oh dolorous joy), sung with lustrous timbre, opened the second half of the recital; the five vocalists enjoyed the harmonic paradoxes used to convey the oxymoronic verse — unexpectedly easeful major harmonies suggest ‘soave dolore’ (sweet suffering), for example. The final line, ‘Poichè sì docle mi fa morto e vivo’ (for so sweetly it makes me feel both dead and alive) had both immediacy and aloofness. The fitful changes of mood of the brief ‘Moro, lasso’ (I die, alas), were powerfully communicated, the despairing cry, ‘Ahi, che m’ancide e non vuo!’ (oh, kills me and will not help me!), full of rhetorical directness.

Two madrigals à 6 brought the sequence to a close: ‘Tenebrae factae sunt’ (Darkness covered the earth) had both solemn depth and warmth, while the incessant suspensions and twists of ‘Caligaverunt oculi mei’ (My eyes are dimmed), particularly in the final homophonic section, were meticulously precise and moving.

Interspersed between the Renaissance treasures were four contemporary works; the present in conversation with the past. (The Gesualdo works were performed without conductor, while director James Weeks led the new madrigals). Stefano Gervanosi’s ‘Amore l’alma m’allaccia’ (Tasso, Love tightens my soul), for SSATB, was immensely challenging with its dense, iridescent sonorities and textures, the accumulating harmonic tension provocatively evoking the pain of ‘dolci aspre catene’ (sweet bitter chains). Repetition of miniature motifs built to an imitative frenzy, and the singers demonstrated rhythmic precision and expert ensemble in the more airy, fragmented closing section, the brief vocal snatches intimating the erotic tensions of the text.

Exaudi performed Michael Finnissy’s Sesto Libro di Carlo Gesualdo I in October 2012; at that time, I remarked the way the composer ‘exploited the sinuous false relations, suspensions and dissonances of the sixteenth-century idiom … explicitly intertwining elements of Gesualdo’s original with Finnissy’s own elaborations and developments’. Here, three later songs from the set were presented. The transparent texture of the 2-voice opening to III, ‘Beltà poi che t’assenti’ (My beauty, since you are gone) was enriched by piquant close dissonances, while the sustained lamenting lines of the end were affectingly shaped. IV, ‘Quel ‘no’ crudel che la mia speme ancise’ (That cruel ‘no’ which killed my hope), presented copious challenges for the two sopranos and for conductor, Weeks, whose broad loops emphatically marked the points of coincidence amid the free rhapsodic sweeps of the vocal lines, with their eerie glissandi and ululations. As the voices moved apart in register, the interplay between the burnished lower voice and the soaring high soprano effectively conveyed love’s power to ‘vince ogni core’ (conquer all hearts). A denser texture characterised VI, ‘Resta di darmi noia’ (Cease to give me annoyance), the five voices vividly articulating the opening text in homophonous broken rhythms; above a bed of sustained chords, tenor and soprano engaged in a veritable vocal battle of passion and bitterness: ‘Morta è per me la gioia,/ Onde sperar non lice/ D’esser mai più felice’ (For me all joy is dead, nor can I ever hope again to find happiness).

Christopher Fox’s ‘suo tormento’ (His torment) is a setting of an extract from Dante’s ‘Inferno’ Canto X, although as the composer’s programme note explained: ‘Dante’s text … is used only as a sound-source and in the score the source-word for each sound is given [in square brackets] to indicate how the underlaid letters should sound. The text is ‘read’ outwards from the centre … reading, as it were, into both past and future — and the music should sound like a doomed attempt to be understood.’ Certainly, the broken phrases expressed a sense of frustrated attempts to see and comprehend and a vexing impotence. Two shorts settings of Antonio Gramsci followed, the words set in more conventional fashion. ‘figura’, ‘hoketus’ and ‘kanon’ from Johannes Schöllhorn’s Madrigali a Dio (texts by Pier Paolo Pasolini) was the last of the modern offerings. Set for 6 voices these madrigals are cerebral works, ‘figura’ opening with a wave-like drone, with the voices freely and linearly interacting with each other in complex just intonation. ‘hoketus’ was energised and unpredictable, meaning conveyed by sound rather than sense, whirling glissandi and introverted ‘chattering’ representing ‘una sola/ Parola, una sola/ Parola ripete pazzamente’ (a single word, a single word madly repeats). The stratospheric soprano in ‘kanon’ was effortlessly delivered by Juliet Fraser, above an energetic counterpoint of male voices. Needless to say, these works demanded enormous precision of rhythm and pitch, perfect ensemble as well as vocal confidence; the members of Exaudi exhibited all these qualities in abundance.

I’ve previously expressed reservations, and I’m still not convinced, that director James Weeks’ inter-madrigal commentaries, though direct and engaging, are truly necessary or beneficial: for they weaken the continuity of the musical dialogue between past and present, a musical conversation which would be stronger if fluid and uninterrupted by the spoken word. But, in the final reckoning the music spoke for itself: the noble humanistic spirit of the Renaissance madrigal, underpinned by the potency of intense vocal expression, is alive and well.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

James Weeks, director; Juliet Fraser, Amanda Morrison, soprano; Lucy Goddard, mezzo-soprano; Tom Williams, countertenor; Stephen Jeffes, Jonathan Bungard, tenor; Jonathan Saunders, Simon Whiteley, bass. Wigmore Hall, London, Wednesday 6th November 2013.