Gesualdo: 6th book of madrigals

La légende noire, La Guilde des Mercenaires, Adrien Mabire

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These performances of madrigals from Gesualdo’s extraordinary final publication, Book VI, a work of stunningly daring harmonic progressions and musical non sequiturs, are themselves revelatory. La Guilde des Mercenaires under the direction of Adrien Mabire are attempting something revolutionary, performances of Gesualdo with wind instruments. The programme note asks why performances of Monteverdi are regularly presented with instruments, while Gesualdo is almost invariably presented a capella. The answer seems obvious – that while Gesualdo’s highly chromatic idiom is tricky for singers, it is perhaps even more tricky for early wind instruments. These performances seem to belie these difficulties, as the wind instruments, occasionally playing on their own, never sound less than comfortable. Whether this is due to the technical proficiency of the players, or whether after all Gesualdo’s writing is more about unexpected progressions and juxtapositions rather than sheer chromaticism, and therefore possibly easier for wind players than singers, the overall effect is very convincing. Part of the ongoing questioning of the myth of a capella performance, it is encouraging to see younger players challenging the old dogmas of HIP performance and exploring alternatives. The wind component of these performances is a real revelation – the vocal contribution is also pretty impressive, and when voices and instruments combine we get a genuine flavour of a whole new dimension of Gesualdo’s music. I still remember the effect of first hearing Byrd’s Great Service with wind and before that, performances of Dufay Masses with voices and wind, and I can’t help feeling that this recording is a similar moment of transformation.

D. James Ross

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