Melancholia: Madrigals and motets around 1600
Les Cris de Paris are pretty hard to capture in a brief paragraph. Readers will recognise them as the chorus in Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles, admired by Mark Pullinger in the August issue, yet they have a much wider repertoire and deliciously rampant musical appetite. This, their first disc with Harmonia Mundi, is to be welcomed and I hope to hear much more from these brilliant musicians in future.
For this programme, ‘Melancholia’, they delve into an adventurous and sumptuous moment of musical history: the 16th century’s own fin de siècle, which Geoffroy Jourdain dubs a musical avant-garde. Many listeners will readily associate this period with the virtuoso Italian madrigalists – Wert, Gesualdo et al – but Jourdain convincingly argues for closer connections between such audacious Italian lamenting and the exquisite English melancholia of Byrd, Dowland and their ilk. For me this works incredibly well, painting intriguing connections between the extrovert chromaticism of Gesualdo and the introvert density of Byrd’s consort textures as well as freely crossing the sacred/secular divide.
The singers make a beautifully balanced sound with impressive fluency across each style. I especially love the countertenors and their cheeky but knowing presence in the intense chromatic moments of Gesualdo’s O vos omnes; warmer, but less sure-footed than The Tallis Scholars (Gimell, 12/87). Here, and throughout this album, there is a pleasing tension between a consort blend and the vital quirkiness of individual voices.
Perhaps the most impressive tracks are the recurring instrumental performances of Byrd’s Lullaby, my sweet little baby ‘imbued with sad premonition’ and his elegy on the death of Philip Sidney, Come to me grief forever. The juxtaposition of forward-looking and retrospective portraits of melancholia are touchingly referenced in the booklet notes and in both pieces I have been long preoccupied with the superb performances by Fretwork with Michael Chance (Virgin/Erato, 3/91, 11/98). I never thought their intimate, sinewy sound could be matched; but here Jourdain’s pairing of serpent, cornet and viols brings a gloriously rich hue to Byrd’s music. To bastardise Victor Hugo, never was there such pleasure in being sad.