My 500-Year-Old CD

Day by day, there’s not much that we encounter from the year 1611. Shakespeare was busy writing The Tempest. Henry Hudson died. Marco de Dominis published a scientific explanation of rainbows. A year later, tobacco was first planted in Virginia, and the Dutch started using Manhattan Island as a trading center.

In 1611, Carlo Gesualdo wrote some of the most uplifting music for voices in the history of the medium, a book of madrigals. This creative work did not come easily. Count Gesualdo of Venoso’s story involves his instigation of the gang murder of his own wildly unfaithful wife (he plunged the sword into her body, and not just once, shouting, repeatedly, “she’s not dead yet!”), then moves through remarkable bouts with depression and abuse, including the dozen men to beat him daily (I’ll spare you details, but you can find them here and in lots of places on the internet). As crazy stories of composers lives go, he’s the hands-down winner. His story is deeply disturbing. His music is miraculous. Witness his captivating Tenebrae, one of the classic items from the formidable ECM catalog, first released in 1991, and consistently astonishing, a record I return to on a regular basis, a record that I recommend with little hesitation to any serious listener. And now, for 2012, witness the same Hilliard Ensemble treating five hundred year old music as if it was contemporary art. The newer disc is called Quinto Libre di Madrigali, and it is fascinating. The title and notes explain: this is the fifth of six books of madrigals, this one created late in the composer’s life. From the liner notes: “The whole collection constitutes a gallery of dramatically lit portraits of human emotions with a heavy emphasis on the extremes of joy and despair.”

There are six voices: a soprano, a pair of countertenors, a pair of tenors, and a baritone. (Soprano Monika Mauch and second countertenor David Gould frequently sing with the four-man Hilliard Ensemble; on this recording, Mauch is stunning.) All six singers sound like angels, and if you close your eyes, it’s easy to imagine these voices climbing up a heavenly spire in search of their lord. They sing in unison, they sing in pairs, they sing in harmony, they sing alone. They climb. They intertwine. They rest and they bounce. They exchange leads almost as if they contain the souls of jazz musicians to come. In musical terms, Gesualdo’s music is often described as “deeply chromatic”–a madman coloring with the brightest possible pigments and an extraordinary level of precision, probably based upon some sort of serious mental illness that caused his creative light to burn just a little too brightly. Two years after he composed these madrigals, he was dead.

Gesualdo’s work is not background music. It is music that captures the imagination, and elevates the spirit in a primal, deeply human way. There are no musical instruments, only voices, and open space.

This is not the best choice of music to play through computer speakers. ECM sets high standards for each of its recording projects, and this one, in particular, demonstrates the care that must be taken in order to record a wide range of vocal performances. The precision, the soaring thrusts, the extraordinary quiet passages, the contemplative quality of the whole, all of this has been meticulously prepared for your enjoyment. Listening through inferior equipment is like trying to contemplate the Mona Lisa by looking at a postage stamp. Best to listen through quality headphones, or on a good stereo system. The CD sounds a whole lot better than a computer file with reduced clarity and range. Trust me on this one: buy the CD, and allow yourself the time and space to listen with your whole being.

The Hilliard Ensemble, plus two additional vocalists. If you’re intrigued, be sure to explore the ensemble’s work with composer Arvo Pärt as well.

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