The Hilliard Ensemble

Carlo Gesualdo: Quinto Libro di Madrigali

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Britain's Hilliard Ensemble made a landmark recording of Gesualdo's Tenebrae Responsories around 1990, but since then has focused mostly on music earlier and later (often much later) than the late Renaissance. Now, with numerous changes in personnel under its belt, it shows that the group has not lost its way with this deliberately outrageous Italian composer. The dissonant harmonies in his madrigals are too often described as being centuries ahead of their time, when in fact they marked the end of a decaying tradition and looked backward rather than forward. Gesualdo, who caught his wife in the sack with another man and killed them both, withdrew from the world and cultivated his increasingly bizarre musical style. It's an open question as to how much his life influenced his music, and the temptation for performers is to overdo the tortured quality. The cool, precise sound of the Hilliard Ensemble, here augmented by the knife-like edge of German soprano Monika Mauch (usually they are an all-male group, but the decision was a good one), is preferable, however. The harmonic twists that are the essence of the Book Five madrigals take on a devastating effect here; for sheer dissonance Book Six exceeds these pieces, but here Gesualdo goes for shocking continuations of seemingly plain openings, and less is more in the interpretation of such a thing. ECM's flawless, minimal sound is another point in favor of this release, which could make a good first pick for anyone interested in the murky, decadent world of Gesualdo's madrigals.

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