I’ve decided to preserve, for posterity, the only music review I’ve ever written outside of this blog. It was written on Amazon.co.uk more than 4 years ago (gorsh), just for a lark. Since at the time I listened almost exclusively to what most people term ‘classical’ music – that is, if you, like Amazon, divide the music world nicely into classical and popular music – it was a classical review. I still remember that I bought this CD at random while in Melbourne for a summer school programme in 2000, and it had the hugest impact on me, kicking off my obsession with Philippe Herreweghe/Collegium Vocale and the harmonia mundi music label. I still think they’re the bee’s knees, actually, and have recently started listening to their records again.

Carlo Gesualdo is not your run-of-the-mill Renaissance composer of vocal music. Juicy details about his rather exciting life abound, and his unusual experiences are believed to have contributed to the very unusual nature of his music, but to focus on them would be to miss the point. His music is the work of absolute genius and unbelievable originality – there is no way that his work could be mistaken for that of any other – and at the same time utterly gorgeous. The melody lines are unexpected but make complete sense, a remarkable feat at a point where most of his contemporaries were reduced to producing formulaic stuff, rehashing tried and trite methods. The frequent changes to tempo and dissonant interjections keep you on your toes, and the interplay between the different voice parts is fascinating.

The Sabbato Sancto showcases Gesualdo at this best: dark and ominous, lullingly beautiful, or quietly contemplative by turns, there’s never a dull moment. The motets included on this disc are equally outstanding in their own way, and illustrate the sheer skill that Gesualdo possessed for putting music to words in a way that colours in their very meaning.

So, in the first place – brilliant music.

In the second place – brilliant performance.

It is sad, but unsurprising that Gesualdo’s music isn’t more well-known than it is: it simply defies convention and classification, and requires a great deal of bravery and technical skill to execute. But Philippe Herreweghe and the Ensemble Vocal Europeen, as expected, achieve it with their usual panache. Herreweghe directs with surety and intelligence, and the stellar Ensemble Vocal Europeen provide purity of tone combined with goosebump-raising sonority. None of those jarring vibratos; just clean, crisp vocal lines, each of which can be followed individually. As usual, the sopranos are wonderfully dark, perfectly suited to the music; the altos are strong; the tenors hit their notes with nary a sign of strain; and the basses are simply outstanding: deep and effortlessly sonorous. The pronunciation is consistent and the enunciation disciplined. This is just about the finest example of vocal performance available.

Sandro Gorli’s Requiem rounds off the disc, and is entirely in keeping with the experimental air of the whole thing. An extremely ‘modern’ piece that probably is more difficult to appreciate than the Gesualdo tracks; I loved it though, if only because it demonstrated yet again the technical finesse of the Ensemble Vocal Europeen. It’s not the familiar Latin Requiem either, but an Italian one of poetic beauty. Altogether a delightful ‘extra’.

This disc approaches perfection.