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Review: I Fagiolini at Live at LICA

Chris Satori
I Fagiolini
Photographer: Eric RichmondI Fagiolini at Live at LICA
Thursday 30 January 2014
in the Great Hall, Lancaster University,

Reviewed by Sally Ryde

Carlo Gesualdo was aged 24 years when he viciously murdered his young wife Maria and her lover, the Duke of Andria, in Naples with an array of sharp pointed weapons, including a pike, a dagger and a stiletto. The attack was so severe that holes were found in the bedroom floor beneath the Duke’s body. A pile of his outer clothing was found not to have been damaged, providing the evidence needed for Gesualdo to avoid imprisonment.

Apparently it was all perfectly legal in the late 1500s but the fact that the perpetrator would later prove to be a talented composer who would create six books of madrigals containing startlingly innovative chromaticisms makes the tale particularly interesting.

How do I know this? I learned it in the pre-concert talk of course! The first surprise of the evening. I can confirm that the other surprises were all musical.

According to the programme notes, Robert Hollingworth, founder of I Fagiolini, specialises in “creating ground-breaking projects which present music to audiences in innovative ways.” The choice of subject for the pre-concert talk must surely have been his. Grotesque though it was, the story certainly made the audience eager to know how the music of the enraged Italian would actually sound.

The third piece of the evening gave us the chance to find out: ‘Ecco moriro dunque’. But it was the unexpected chord progressions in the later ‘Asciugate i begli occhi’ and ‘Tu m’uccidi, oh crudele’ that really caught my ear (performed here and here by other ensembles).

Hollingworth had forewarned us all that the ear of a modern audience was very different to that of a Renaissance listener. Where a modern musician would expect a certain familiar harmonic progression, Gesualdo’s chosen progression was shockingly different. This had caused many mistakes in initial rehearsals, not because the singers lacked the necessary sight-reading skills but because the aural expectations were so strongly misleading.

Were it not for Hollingworth’s excellent programme notes, I would still be wondering why, if all these unusual harmonic progressions were out there on the musical landscape as early as 1600, how is it that they did not influence Baroque and Classical music a century or so later? It seems that the weird harmonic progressions of Gesualdo’s music, and that of others at the court of the Duke of Ferrara where Gesualdo spent two years following his second marriage, became a musical dead end until Wagner. Mainstream composers stuck to the traditional chord progressions where implied key modulations almost invariably involved the changing of only a single note in the scale, in contrast to Gesualdo’s frequent practice of replacing 3, and sometimes more, notes in adjacent tonalities.

Such free use of chromaticism, both harmonic and melodic, allowed the composer to let the music paint poetic images. Trying to sing the result, in Hollingworth’s words, was like trying to build Escher’s drawings in three dimensions: “impossibilities seemingly held together in physical space through art.” The ensemble apparently encountered the same difficulty when first trying to convert Gesualdo’s chromatic scores into similar “impossibilities”, held together perhaps in aural space only by the imagination.
I would have preferred to have had some of the pre-concert talk allocated to aural examples of the unexpected harmonies. A small part of the concert itself was given over to such illustrations and this was very effective. I only wish there had been more.

I Fagiolini comprised soprano, mezzo soprano, alto (counter tenor), tenor, baritone and bass. Their ability to achieve pure acoustic intervals seemed delightfully perfect, always intending a C# to be different from a D-flat instead of the two pitches being fused together in an equally-tempered soup. Countertenor Hollingworth is Anniversary Reader in Music at the University of York where I Fagiolini are Ensemble in Residence. Fittingly for an evening of unexpected chord progressions, the programme was entitled “Strange Harmony of Love - Renaissance music of sweet and strange beauty”.

This was yet another amazing concert in the current Live at LICA series and I see that there are more still to come!

S. Ryde

Artists’ website:

Concert Programme:
Madrigals and motets by Lassus, De Wert, Gesualdo, Luzzaschi, Fontanelli, Monteverdi, Marenzio, Tomkins, Weelkes and D’India

Tickets were priced (web advance):  Adults £21.50, Concessions £18.50, Young person/student £7.50

Future musical events at Live at LICA: ‘What’s On