Concerto Italiano, founded and directed by Renaissance and Baroque specialist Rinaldo Alessandrini, is an outstanding vocal and instrumental ensemble. Each of its singers has an exceptionally lovely voice: strong, pure, focused, and full of character. Together, they produce a fabulously rich blend that is warm and sensual without sacrificing purity. The individuality of the members and their ability to meld into a seamless unity are characteristics ideal for late Renaissance madrigals, especially the idiosyncratic madrigals of Gesualdo, where the distinctiveness of each voice is essential for music that is essentially driven by its counterpoint, and the unanimity of the blend allows the eccentricities of harmony to make their maximum impact. Alessandrini's tempos tend to be on the languorous side, but he invests the lines with such purposeful feeling that they don't seem inappropriately slow. Gesualdo's intent in his extravagantly chromatic lines was to express emotions that are frequently piercingly intense, and the singers don't hold back in bringing out that intensity, to powerful effect. When the music moves through its agonized convolutions to a clear and consonant resolution, as in "Beltà poiche t'assenti," the effect is gloriously cathartic. The Gesualdo works, from his Fifth and Sixth Books of Madrigals, are framed by several pieces by his contemporaries Luzzacho Luzzaschi, Philippe de Monte, Pomponio Nenna, and Giovan Domenico Montella, which Alessandrini includes to demonstrate that while Gesualdo was not alone in his exploration of extreme chromaticism, he still surpasses the others in the wonderful strangeness and expressive depth of his progressions. His keyboard piece Canzon francese, the only instrumental work on the album, has moments of such harmonic oddity that it's almost guaranteed to make listeners do a double take. The album makes a fine introduction to the state of the Italian madrigal at the tail end of the Renaissance, just before the composers of the early Baroque would react to what they saw as its excesses and take music in a radically different direction. The sound is clean, warm, and immediate.
Review by Stephen Eddins