Early Music

GESUALDO Madrigali, Libri primo & secondo

Les Arts Florissants / Paul Agnew

(Harmonia Mundi)

The Gramophone Review

Some 30 years ago Iain Fenlon referred to Les Arts Florissants’ initial Gesualdo disc as their ‘first foray into the schizophrenic world of Gesualdo’s five-voice madrigals’ (10/88). His words encapsulated perfectly a common overarching view of Gesualdo’s virtuoso chromaticism which suited the text-centred, quick-fire responses of William’s Christie’s original singers so well. Now the ensemble return to Gesualdo’s madrigals with Paul Agnew at the helm and a new generation of voices as they celebrate their 40th-anniversary concerts. Beginning with Books 1 and 2, we encounter lesser-known and less extrovert works but find the ensemble crackling with that same intellectual energy.

‘The sheer inquisitive delight that these singers bring to Gesualdo’s extraordinary world indicates a very exciting series ahead’

Throughout this recording the unaccompanied voices underplay Gesualdo’s quirks, consigning actions and emotions to subtler, less frenetic planes than others have before, and maintain flowing, conversational tempos. Take the opening of Book 1, ‘Baci soavi, e cari’ (‘Kisses sweet and tender’), where the voices are flushed, blushing with quick and tender kisses. How unencumbered and mobile these singers are compared to the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam (CPO, 2/06). Likewise, the harpsichord used by Concerto delle Dame di Ferrara (Brilliant Classics) feels unnecessarily persistent by comparison. The fleeting nature of Gesualdo’s flurried passages is a particular speciality of Les Arts Florrissants: after a still, frigid opening to ‘Gelo ha Madonna il seno’ (‘My lady has ice in her heart’), the change to flickering flames in her eyes is impressively palpable.

With the sound of their Award-winning Monteverdi madrigals (1/15, 7/15, 2/17) fresh in our ears, this new disc, also made from live recordings, offers fresh views of that famous madrigalian fork-in-the-road: Monteverdi’s experimental laboratory veered towards monody, Gesualdo’s led him to push further into the polyphonic web, fracturing texts and harmonies. The sheer inquisitive delight that these singers bring to Gesualdo’s extraordinary world indicates a very exciting series ahead.

(Edward Breen, December 2019)

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