This beautifully presented disc is the third in a sequence of six covering Gesualdo's entire output of madrigals and secular works. The first two issues received and enthusiastic critical reception; this third is of particular interest in that it marks the turning point in Gesualdo's musical idiom from a more conventional style to that for which he is most celebrated: arresting dissonances and a marked intensity, concision and directness of address to create pathos and drama. In other words, as one reviewer elsewhere aptly puts it, "seriously weird."
Published in 1595, these madrigals are also important and unusual in that they constitute perhaps the first example of output by an artist who, being an aristocrat himself, was free from the constraints of patronage and could exercise his artistic autonomy to ignore the criteria for approval and success and not only introduce whatever innovations he chose in his musical language but also set texts by whomever he pleased. Indeed, he rejected verse regularly and humbly submitted to him by Torquato Tasso in favour of lesser or even anonymous poets. He was thus, as Longhini suggests, possibly "the first composer in history to have had the luxury of pursuing art for art's sake."
The scandalous and turbulent events of his discovering and murdering his wife and lover in flagrante are too well known to bear repetition; the evidence of Gesualdo's tortured contrition is all over the music which is markedly darker and more obsessive than in Book Two. He was legally immune from prosecution on the grounds that he was both a nobleman and merely a perpetrator of "crimes of honour", but threats of revenge and general condemnation dogged him. The marks made by on his mental health and his subsequent descent into chronic depression are typified in his most famous madrigal "Ancidetemi pur, grieve martiri" ("Do not kill me, grievous suffering"). Key emotive words and phrases such as "martire" "dolore" and "tormento" and "questa misera vita" ("this wretched life of mine") are repeatedly emphasised by their stark original musical treatment. For once, the tired banalities of the language of courtly love have their roots in real, rather than feigned or formulaic, suffering, as Gesulado had apparently sincerely loved his wife, his cousin whom he had known since childhood, and was equally sincerely conscience-stricken by the extraordinary violence of his vengeance upon her and Fabrizio Carafa.
The singing here is of a high order: intonation is impeccable and the blend of voices agreeably smooth: the countertenors are free of squalliness or hootiness and the bass does not groan. Seven tracks, including the two concluding bonus items, feature an accompaniment by a "clavicembalo" (a harpsichord to you and me); otherwise the emphasis is upon a capella purity. The microphone placement in this recording is very close to the singers but that, if anything, reveals how precise and subtly graded their singing is and there is till a wide spread of sound, allowing you to hear individual lines clearly. The vocal colouring and shading of dynamics are exquisite: when they sing "gli estremi miei sospiri", their voices really do sigh and die; notes are held steadily with minimal vibrato or none at all; pauses and rubato are employed judiciously and effectively without obviousness. The sound of the Veronese church location is warm and full yet the singers' diction is crystal clear; nothing like native Italians in such music with undistorted vowels, crisp consonants and neatly trilled "r's". The freedom and invention of Gesualdo's chromatic harmonies and rhythms are sometimes startling; listening to a whole hour of such unvaryingly sombre and self-pitying music can be wearing, but that may be addressed by an appreciation of the vitality and variety of the singing of DelitiŠ MusicŠ or, as a more practical solution to potential overload, listening to no more than twenty minutes of this music at a sitting.
There are two bonus tracks: a pair of "canzonette" published in 1618 added to complete the survey of the Gesualdo canon.
The elegant booklet includes a full, informative and scholarly essay by editor, conductor and producer Marco Longhini, biographies, Italian texts and English translations and the cover is graced by tastefully selected artwork, continuing the welcome pattern of the series. This series clearly marks a highpoint in the Naxos Early Music catalogue