Carlo Gesualdo: Contrasting approaches

Preparing for the polemics… I bring to your consideration today, first, a typical contemporary performance of “Moro, lasso, al mio duolo”, a five-part madrigal by Carlo Gesualdo, with Concerto Italiano and Rinaldo Alessandrini. Rarefied, detached, with the voices exhibiting no vibrato at all, an almost blasé sort of performance, one might say.

Lest it be thought that I don’t like vibratoless voices in early/baroque music, I hasten to add — I like them a lot, for they undoubtedly help exhibiting the polyphonic texture in a clear manner. There is a number of ensembles that sing this way nowadays, and some of them are really good.

And yet…

Now, here is another performance of the same work, this time with the celebrated — and arguably “old-school”, as present-day fashion has it — the Deller Consort. I was suprised to find to what extent Gesualdo provides a terrific benchmark for making interesting critical exercises of comparing distinct approaches.

The Deller version is almost the exact opposite of the version with Concerto Italiano: dramatic, excessive, almost romantic, with slower tempo, and voices full with a rich vibrato. It is neither a “period” nor a “minimalist” performance at all — that’s for sure. “Anachronic”, probably.

And yet…

As regards this latest video, there is a user comment on Youtube that expresses quite well a widespread opinion among present-day early music lovers, to wit: that the Deller version is “stilistically less correct”, because “now we know a lot more about that historical period” than at the time of the recording. Well, I beg to disagree. I consider this sort of argumentation short-sighted.

If there are any reasons for favoring one version over the other, I believe it’s not on any “archaeological” grounds. Such reasions might be sought elsewhere — internal coherence, controlled anachronism, deconstruction, even the “de gustibus non est disputandum” (a.k.a “matters of taste”) approach is better. I think the discourse of “historical legitimacy” can be easily refuted. My own personal theoretical take regarding so-called period performances in general can be read here.

As to these two particular performances of Gesualdo, well… As I said above, I am no particular friend of  heavy vibrato, and I sure like to hear polyphonic textures clearly. But there is something which is clearly present in the old Deller version — and suprisingly absent from the Italian ensemble. You can call it by whatever name you like — some call it groove, some call it passion, some call it life.

Today it seems that a performance that bursts with enjoyment and groove is somehow considered “not cool”, and therefore not sanctioned by both industry and critics. As to myself, I´ll probably never let go from structure. This is a notion that is deeply rooted in my own worldview. But the point is that a rich enough structural approach must include emotion.

After quite some years being an enthusiastic fan of historical performances of early music, as time passes, the more I find myself seeming to like ‘anti-period’ performers such as Ana Vidovic, Julian Bream, Glenn Gould, old masters such as Rudolf Primrose and Alfred Brendel, orchestras such as the Academy of St.-Martin-in-the-Fields, as well as coherent and well-articulated experimentalists with “controlled anachronism” such as Paul Galbraith.

That much said, therefore, in this case, I stay with Deller.