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With the ever increasing interest in "early music" throughout the 20th century, Carlo Gesualdo - Prince of Venosa, mid-way between Naples and Bari - has been a source of fascination for many. Part of that interest, for sure, was Gesualdo's status as music history's most notorious double murderer; his wife, Maria d'Avolos and her lover Don Fabrizio Carafa were caught in flagrante by Gesualdo, and suffered gruesome deaths of multiple stabbings on the night of 26 October 1590. But musicians have been even more drawn to the consequence of that crime of passion - a compositional output, late in life, ridden with guilt and remorse (so the story goes), and exhibiting in the chromatic harmony an outrageous daring that was well ahead of its time.

The 18th century writer Charles Burney, ahead of his own time in an appreciation of renaissance-period repertoire, was not a fan: Gesualdo's music was characterised by "harsh, crude and licentious modulation...extremely shocking and disgusting to the ear." But in more recent times, Gesualdo has been regarded by some as modernism's outrider from an earlier age. Peter Warlock's alter-ego Philip Heseltine co-wrote a Gesualdo biography in 1926. Stravinsky marked the 400th anniversary of his birth in 1960 with three madrigal "re-compositions" for orchestra, the Monumentum pro Gesualdo. Frank Zappa was a fan. And Brett Dean composed this appropriately unsettling work for strings, sampling keyboard and recorded choral interpolations for premiere by the Australian Chamber Orchestra at the Huntington Winery, New South Wales, in December 1997.

Although not tracking any particular narrative, it feels like a tone poem - a static, psychological one, a haunting investigation of despair and guilt. Dean, in his own programme note for Carlo, makes it clear how much this piece is musical, psychological biography: "...I believe that with Carlo Gesualdo one shouldn't try to separate his music from his life and times. They are intrinsically interrelated. The texts of his later madrigals, thought to be written by Gesualdo himself, abound with references to love, death, guilt and self-pity. Combine this with the fact that I've always found Gesualdo's vocal works to be one of music's great and most fascinating listening experiences and you have the premise of my piece."

is all about the tension and contrast between choral Gesualdo and Dean's own string writing, itself a commentary on and deconstruction of the Gesualdo material. From the outset, with the sinking, sighing chorale from Gesualdo's celebrated madrigal Moro lasso, two ages clash and conjoin. Pure Gesualdo quickly merges with disturbed instrumental utterings, and Dean smudges Gesualdo's chromatic chord progressions further with successive semitonal transpositions in the pre-recorded vocal collage. From a preset keyboard sampler, further snatches of Gesualdo are triggered alongside the CD vocals. Some of these samples, such as the Tu Piangi whispers (also from Gesualdo's Book 6 of madrigals) and "e non vuoldar" clusters, are set in time. Others, such as the lamenting sighs of solo voices at the work's climax, are more the results of ad libitum triggers by the sampler player.

“I believe that with Carlo Gesualdo one shouldn't try to separate his music from his life and times. They are intrinsically interrelated.”
Brett Dean

Dean's writing for strings is confident and eloquent for someone so relatively new to composition back in 1997. Subtle, pointillistic detail contrasts with agitated, jagged scurrying. The full range of string effects - from slap pizzicato, tremolandi and glissandi to on-the-bridge ostinato - makes for a richly atmospheric orchestral texture. Over a through-composed span of 20 minutes, Dean draws the listener to the principal climax by way of earlier sections of climax and repose - the initial Moro lasso exposition, a quicker, strings-based agitato, a hushed, muted section based around the descending semitones of 'e non vuoldar', and the pre-recorded, rhythmicised exhalations that lead to the disquieting, almost schlock-horror climax.

A desolate coda is set off by contrabass "moro lasso" chantings, and after lyrical string solos lain over sampled Moro Lasso chords, Dean introduces a short passage from Gesualdo's remarkable six-part settings of the Responsories for Holy Week. With the words ' ego vadam immolari pro vobis' ( '...and I shall go to be offered up for you'), Dean's choice from the second Responsory for Maundy Thursday strikes home with valedictory melancholy. As this recorded passage proceeds, each string instrument inconspicuously joins the texture. And then, as Gesualdo's final chord settles, the full creepiness of the cluster that Dean has created dawns on the listener. Its dissonant tendrils wrap around the Gesualdo, and throttle it with a horrifying, crescendo-induced silence.

© Meurig Bowen

Britten Sinfonia and the Marian Consort: Renaissance Moderns

Britten Sinfonia and the Marian Consort: Renaissance Moderns

Saturday 11 May at Milton Court Concert Hall, London
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