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Gesualdo: Madrigali, Books 3 & 4

Les Arts Florissants/Paul Agnew (Harmonia Mundi)

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

Madrigali, Books 3 & 4
Les Arts Florissants/Paul Agnew
Harmonia Mundi HAF8905309-10   90:05 mins (2 discs)


It’s often speculated that Gesualdo’s extreme musical language is the mirror of a tortured soul who murdered his wife and her lover whom he found in flagrante delicto. Here, though, Les Arts Florissants’s director, tenor Paul Agnew, suggests that his scorching dissonances and chromaticisms were the natural continuation of a highly expressive musical language which had emerged in Ferrara in the later 16th century.

This series of discs to record the complete madrigals here reaches Books Three and Four. The texts – mostly by Ferrarese poets – revel in morbid themes of love unrequited and an obsessional longing for death. The singers pay studious attention to the poetry and its nuances, painting the words with a rich palette and contrasting light and shade to reflect Gesualdo’s chiaroscuro. ‘Dolce spirto d’amore’, for example, is seductively whispered in breathy tones suggesting ‘The sweet spirit of love, greeted with a sigh’; in ‘Sospirava il mio core’ the singers plumb resonant depths to carve out the words ‘You may die, but your martyrdom will continue’; ‘Se vi miro pietosa’ oscillates between pulsating life and hushed silence, pointing up the textual antitheses; in ‘Io tacerò, ma nel silentio mio’, steel-edged sopranos suggest the ‘heartless lady’ of the poet’s fixation. There’s an almost unbearable bitter-sweetness to ‘Dolcissimo sospiro’, while in ‘Moro, e mentre sospiro’ the singers’ ghostly wailings create an anguished interior monologue.

Harmonia Mundi’s recording is clean and immediate: individual parts are easily discernible within the finely balanced ensemble and the words cut through with feverish intensity.

Read more reviews of the latest Gesualdo recordings


Kate Bolton-Porciatti