Friday 27 May 2022

Cruel Ecstasy: Exaudi in Gesualdo at Norfolk & Norwich Festival

Carlo Gesualdo
Carlo Gesualdo

Carlo Gesualdo: Madrigals from Books V and VI, Sylvia Lim, Joanna Ward; Exaudi, James Weeks; Norfolk & Norwich Festival at St Andrew's Hall
Reviewed 22 May 2022 by Tony Cooper

Gesualdo madrigals, punctuated by the two fulfilling contemporary works by Sylvia Lim and Joanna Ward, made a perfect programme for Exaudi's Norwich début

Exaudi Vocal Ensemble has been exploring the enigmatic and challenging madrigals of Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, Count of Conza, for over a decade and, not surprisingly, their 2019 album Gesualdo: Madrigali received rave reviews and awards from around the world for the ‘emotional wisdom and beauty’ of their performance. 

The emotional wisdom and beauty of their performance for this Norfolk & Norwich Festival concert shone through, too, featuring as it did a host of well-loved madrigals from Gesualdo’s Fifth and Sixth Books published in 1611. Basically, they can be seen as musical ‘twins’ concluding with a collection of madrigals by a composer whose boundless invention and creativity was unrestrained by his employer’s demands or to the constraints of courtly convention. In these respective Books, Gesualdo returns to such topical themes as love and rejection, joy and sorrow, life and death, thus creating music which has the power to surprise and enthral the listener.

The first phase of the programme opened with three pieces Gioite voi col canto (V), Se la mia morte brami (VI) and S’io non miro non moro (V) followed by Sylvia Lim’s new work burst flood wound before continuing with a further three madrigals Io parto, e non più dissi (VI), Asciugate i begli occhi (V) and O dolorosa gioia (V). A further interruption ensued in which to give the world première performance of Joanna Ward’s telling composition Living on Ice Cream and Chocolate Kisses (a Norfolk & Norwich Festival commission) while the programme concluded with three more pieces Itene, o miei sospiri (V), Moro, lasso, al mio duolo (VI) and Languisce al fin chi da la vita parte (V).

Under the direction of James Weeks, the ensemble - comprising Emma Tring (soprano), Lucy Goddard (mezzo-soprano), Tom Williams (countertenor), David de Winter, Stephen Jeffes (tenors) and Jimmy Holliday (bass) - delivered a masterful and entertaining performance that, I feel, could not be bettered.

I have had the pleasure of hearing Exaudi on many occasions, particularly in Blythburgh and Orford parish churches as part of the Aldeburgh Festival, so I was more than pleased to hear them in my home city of Norwich. Hopefully, they’ll return to the ‘old mustard depot’ in the not-too-distant future. Anyhow, the Gesualdo madrigals, punctuated by the two fulfilling contemporary works by Sylvia Lim and Joanna Ward, made a perfect programme for their Norwich début and the large audience let that fact be known at curtain-call.

Interestingly, the text for Sylvia Lim’s burst flood wound was assembled from Books V and VI. In their original context, they expressed the extremes of Gesualdo’s emotions: joy, grief and longing therefore Ms Lim’s piece took from Gesualdo’s music its alternation between slow harmonic material and quick polyphonic imitation suitably reflected (and heard to good effect) in the polyphony of breaths and spoken text while Joanna Ward’s Living on Ice Cream and Chocolate Kisses responded in some way to the music of Gesualdo specifically with respect to the highly masculine perspective on love and desire manifested in his madrigals.

The last word, however, goes to James Weeks, who co-founded Exaudi with soprano Juliet Fraser in 2002. He gave a short description of the madrigals in an entertaining and engaging manner that the audience simply loved and proved to be an excellent and amusing raconteur, too, when he touched upon Carlo Gesualdo’s colourful, eventful and dramatic life.

Commercial break! Don’t stop listening! Exaudi’s latest recording Gesualdo Madrigali received the prestigious award Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik and duly named as one of BBC Radio 3’s Discs of the Year.

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