madrigals and motets around 1600
Les Cris de Paris, Geoffroy Jourdain
harmonia mundi musique HMM 902298
Byrd, Gesualdo, Gibbons, Luzzaschi, Marenzio, Nenna, Tudino & Wilbye

The challenge in writing this review is in striking a balance between commending aspects of this recording, and warning about other aspects of it. First, it is, and is not, a programme of enjoyably miserable music. It can be listened to in the former vein, but upon reading the booklet’s notes, it becomes clear that the performers aspire to something more … philosophical. It is arguably a strength of this recording that a listener can be happy wallowing in some sumptuously unhappy music, or can engage with a narrative about the nature of melancholia. Throughout the programme, there are what the director describes in these accompanying notes as “instrumental recurrences which punctuate the pieces on this programme”: excerpts in varying instrumental combinations from two other originally vocal pieces, both by Byrd, interspersed throughout the recording.

The repertory is of both sacred and secular music from England and Italy either side of 1600. The performers are ten singers and five instrumentalists (three viols, two winds). The disc begins with a most impressive rendition of Wilbye’s Draw on, sweet night: the emotional temperature perfectly judged (not too histrionic, but nonetheless anguished) and the weighting of the individual parts ideal, with supportive but not rumbling bass, clarity from the middle parts, and firm but not piercing upper voices. This is carried into Byrd’s Tristitia et anxietas so that it is most frustrating that the ensemble does not sing the secunda pars. Three varied Italian works then follow – an instrumental rendering of a madrigal by Tudino, the first of two settings onthe disc by Gesualdo of O vos omnes and the sumptuous La mia doglia s’avanza by Nenno. After the welcome appearance of one of Wilbye’s less familiar madrigals O wretched man there comes the first of the disc’s instrumental recurrences – an excerpt from Byrd’s funeral song Come to me grief forever – thenGibbons’ What is our life with a theatrically peremptory close, a chromatic Crudeleacerba inesorabilmorte by Marenzio … and another recurrence: yet another bleeding chunk, another instrumental combination, another originally vocal pieceby poor old Byrd, his Lullaby. And so ends the first half of the show.

The bulk of the second half consists of works by Italian composers – a tantalizingly mediaeval sounding Quivi sospiri by Luzzaschi (born 1545, however), another chromatic madrigal by Marenzio, and two more sacred settings and a madrigal by Gesualdo, including an earlier and even more gripping Ovos omnes, again interspersed with two more chunks, weeping rather than bleeding, from Byrd’s much put-upon Lullaby. And it is English works that complete the programme: good performances of Weelkes’ O care, wilt thou despatch me and Tomkins’s “finely contrived” (Denis Stevens) homage to his teacher Byrd Too much I once lamented … followed by two more recurrences to complete the disc – increasingly ghostly instrumental reminiscences of, again, Byrd’s Come tome grief and Lullaby.

So, what is the point of these recurrences from two of Byrd’s pieces? Neither work is performed in full. Why? Nowhere are voices used. Why? Well, courtesy of M. Jourdain the director, there is a hifalutin justification. Seemingly these recurrences are used in order to engage the listener with grand theorizing about the nature of melancholy. But these sweeping pronouncements and original truths become obfuscated in the fog of their own verbiage – the booklet’s concluding paragraph climaxing in the proclamation “Melancholia is dead, long live melancholy!” could be a candidate for Pseuds’ Corner in Private Eye -and the gimmick of recurrence, or the recurring gimmick, fails. Furthermore, and rather more practically, it is irritating that two fine, powerful pieces by Byrd (three including the truncated Tristitia) are never performed in full, merely, it would seem, in order to illustrate some contrived and fanciful notions.

Moreover, it cannot be said that the rest of the programme (creditably, full texts are provided) is entirely satisfactory. The individual pieces are wonderful, and the performances do them full justice, but the unrelenting melancholy becomes too much of a good thing, which the recurrences do nothing to alleviate or explain or complement, accumulating until a tipping point during the sequence of the Italian pieces in the second half of the programme. The disc could well be worth obtaining for the quality of the individual pieces and for the performances, but might be best heard in small doses and particular moods, and perhaps with certain (French) red or white beverages close at hand –just the odd glass; and, when reading the booklet, salt – just the odd pinch.

Richard Turbet

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