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GRAMOPHONE (04/2021)
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Harmonia Mundi

Code-barres / Barcode : 3149020942048



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Reviewer: Edward Breen

After winning last year’s Gramophone Early Music Award, this second instalment in Les Arts Florissants’ Gesualdo series continues to offer performances that balance the chromatic adventurousness of these works with what Fabrice Fitch described as ‘the solid craftsmanship and dramatic sensibility’ that characterise Gesualdo’s early books of madrigals (A/20).

The set begins with the exquisite ‘Voi volete ch’io mora’ (‘You wish me to die’), and we experience all four seasons of expression in as many lines of poetry. There is despair in the opening, descending phrase, an immediate complication, a sudden blend of voices and then an extraordinary surge of energy on the last line, which closes with kaleidoscopic harmony. The singers don’t dwell on these details, though: these are whirling, realtime thoughts, and their performance is notably faster than La Compagnia del Madrigale and Delitiæ Musicæ. Les Arts Florissants also punctuate their text with superb flashes of inspiration: such as a tenor’s quasi giggle of disbelief on the first syllable of ‘E non mi dat’incontr’a morte aita’ (‘nor offer a remedy for my death’). A whole world is here in the first 69 seconds and no CD has made me yearn to hear the live performance as much as this. Yet for all Gesualdo’s exquisite word-painting, these albums are consistently more subtle than sensational. Consider the onomatopoeic opening for ‘Sospirava il mio core’ (‘A sigh came from my heart’). Fully integrated with the musical line, the singers avoid melodrama through intimate, small gestures as if acting for screen, not stage.

Denis Morrier’s booklet notes highlight the exploration of opposites in the fourth book, a device that suits the lightning reactions of this ensemble. To focus on a favourite, ‘Moro, e mentre sospiro’ (‘I die, and as I expire’), we hear the oppositional devices in adjacent lines reflected in the performance without a frenetic sheen. Will such fluency and naturalism hold as they approach the later works and Gesualdo’s development of a more extreme chromaticism? If they pull this off, Agnew might well finally shift some focus away from Gesualdo’s murderous private life.

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