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Madrigals, Madness, and Murder (Expanded)

Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo pursued a lavish love life, enjoyed pain and got away with murder. A brave, pioneering performance of his madrigals mounted in Thailand for the first time by Somtow Sucharitkul and Opera Siam challenged the sensibilities of a nearly sold-out auditorium at the Thailand Cultural Center on Wednesday, January 17. The event presented the voices of the Calliope Chamber Choir, the Jatava Quartet, composer and conductor Trisdee na Patalung, and poetic readings by Italian actor Maurizio Mistretta. Their combined efforts under the direction of Khun Sucharitkul brought back to life some of the most darkly obscure and powerful Renaissance music. The event was part of the 2018 Italian Festival in Bangkok, with His Excellency Francesco Saverio Nisio, Italy’s ambassador to Thailand, in attendance.

Given Gesualdo’s gleefully vindictive exploits – he dispatched his first wife after catching her with her lover in flagrante delicto, and occasionally savored self-flagellation – it’s worth noting that no blood was shed and not a soul was extinguished on Wednesday night. Gesualdo was Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza, regions in southern Italy. Owing to his nobility and cunning, he could escape punishment. Gesualdo’s father planned for him to go into priesthood, but it didn’t work out. A vocational eccentric and a profligate par excellence, the prince of Italian Renaissance music once gave a banquet of no less than 120 courses. If you feel inspired, see Werner Herzog’s 1995 quasi-biographical documentary Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices, which provides insight into the mind of the mad genius. A year before becoming paralyzed from a stroke, Alfred Schnittke, a Soviet polystylist of German origin, chose Gesualdo’s exciting life as the subject of his 1993 opera in seven tableaux.

Gesualdo’s lifelong preoccupation with music is best evidenced by his madrigals. A madrigal is a secular composition, typical of the Renaissance and early Baroque polyphony, written for two to eight voices. Gesualdo both learned and perfected the art of the madrigal in Ferrara, once a small but significant seat of musical experimentation in northern Italy. Aldous Huxley wrote of Gesualdo in The Doors of Perception, calling the voices in his madrigals “a kind of bridge back to the human world,” and thought them worthy of interrupting Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K. 491, after its opening movement.

Khun Sucharitkul’s was a fine reading of Gesualdo’s fiendishly difficult late Renaissance music, rife with unstable, fluttering harmonies foreshadowing a radical chromaticism of Mahler and Berg, some 300 years in the future. This is all the more striking as Gesualdo’s music is modal and precedes tonality, which saw its inception later in the Baroque period. The daunting aural alchemy of the prince of darkness pushed the Calliope Chamber Choir soloists to their vocal limits. They were accompanied with aplomb by Trisdee on harpsichord. His gently balanced phrasing consoled the ear disturbed by the harmonic fireworks of the voices. The cellist of the Jatava Quartet deserves to be singled out for providing an impeccable rhythmic and harmonic basis on which the unearthly melodies suitably teetered. Moro, lasso, al mio duolo (I am dying from my grief), Gesualdo’s best known composition from his Sixth Book of Madrigals, published in 1611, provided a confident centerpiece with its beautiful word painting. In the interludes, Mr. Maurizio Mistretta gave an impassioned, but unnecessary reading of Italian poetry, emphasizing histrionics to the extent it distracted from the alluring music.

The concert marked an auspicious beginning of what promises to be a delightful monthly series at the Thailand Cultural Center. More of Gesualdo’s music, recorded in Bangkok under the assured baton of Khun Sucharitkul, will be heard in Paul Spurrier’s film Eullenia. In the meantime, a demanding listener who craves more musical passion and murder can taste the Danish Musica Ficta recording of Gesualdo’s madrigals, and the Philippe Herreweghe or the Peter Philips with the Tallis Scholars rendition of Gesualdo’s sacred music. Next, on February 18, Trisdee led the Siam Sinfonietta in their premiere performance of Dvořák’s New World Symphony, with the most haunting English horn solo in the repertory.

 

About the author: Tomáš Bazika is a classical music historian and a critical thinking teacher. He enjoys reviewing concerts, interviewing and photographing musicians, and giving talks in Europe and Asia. In addition, he finds personal growth in listening to new music and exploring unseen films, simultaneously collecting film soundtracks and classical music recordings. Tomáš was born in Prague, and since 2014 has called Bangkok his home. You can email him at t.bazika@gmail.com.

 

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