GESUALDO: Quinto Libro di Madrigali (The Hilliard Ensemble)

Exquisite vocal drama brings out Gesualdo’s sadomasochism.

Love and longing, passion and pain, sex and death – all intertwined in this orgy of deliciously daring harmonies from Carlo Gesualdo’s Fifth Book of Madrigals. It’s no surprise that the composer set these confessional love poems with such heart-wrenching, visceral chromaticism – this is the Italian nobleman who in 1590 murdered his wife and her lover upon discovering them in flagrante. He had issues, then.

The Hilliard quartet, joined by silver-voiced soprano Monika Mauch and second countertenor David Gould, certainly aren’t afraid to twist the knife in these  searingly expressive readings. They lean into the sensual dissonances without compromising the impeccable intonation equally in evidence on their first haunting Gesualdo disc Tenebrae, recorded back in 1990. Just listen to the finely balanced polyphony in Tu m’uccidi, o crudele (“You are killing me, o cruel woman”), or the soprano cry of ecstasy and florid ornamentation in the steamy Deh, coprite il bel seno (“Oh, cover your beautiful bosom – my soul faints from gazing at it too much!”). Countertenor David James adds a pungent quality to the vocal texture that befits such bittersweet texts.

The Hilliard Ensemble wrings every last drop of drama out of Gesualdo’s singular world of harmonic extremism, but never overdoes it or sacrifices beauty in the phrasing.

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GESUALDO: Quinto Libro di Madrigali (The Hilliard Ensemble)
3.5 out of 5
ECM 2175
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