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31.8.06

Monteverdi's Madrigals

Claudio Monteverdi left history, among many surviving and too many tantalizingly lost works, nine books of incredibly diverse and often exquisite madrigals. These important pieces have been recorded by many different groups, too many to catalogue here, but until recent years, I have been happiest with the recording of selections made by Les Arts Florissants. Right now, two Italian ensembles are making exciting new cycles, Marco Longhini's Delitiæ Musicæ (currently on Book 5 with Naxos) and Rinaldo Alessandrini's Concerto Italiano (just released Book 6 with Naïve but not in a systematic order -- hopefully Alessandrini will undertake a new complete cycle with Concerto Italiano). The hallmark of the Italian madrigal is its excellent poetry -- Petrarch, Tasso, Ariosto, Guarini, and all the best poets of the Renaissance and early Baroque -- and the most expressive musical techniques of the time used to express the poetry's extremes of emotion. From the late 16th century, the genre was the exclusive territory of the greatest vocal virtuosos of the era, to be supplanted only as opera became the dominant vocal form in the 17th century.

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Monteverdi, Fifth Book of Madrigals, Delitiæ Musicæ, Marco Longhini (released on June 20, 2006)
Available at Amazon:
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Monteverdi, Sixth Book of Madrigals, Concerto Italiano, Rinaldo Alessandrini (released on May 16, 2006)
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Monteverdi, 7th and 8th Books of Madrigals, Les Arts Florissants, William Christie (re-released in 2005)

Delitiæ Musicæ:
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Book 1


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Book 2


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Book 3


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Book 4
With Delitiæ Musicæ, Marco Longhini is making a thorough set of discs, with booklets containing full texts and translations, as well as Longhini's comprehensive liner notes for each book. The group performs the madrigals, quite sensibly, with one singer to a part. Instruments provide support only in some of the pieces, because Monteverdi was quite consciously shifting between older and newer styles, providing a basso continuo part only for some of the madrigals. There is a real shift for the final six madrigals in Book 5, featured on the group's newest release, which shows how the former conception of independent lines in Renaissance polyphony gave way to a manner of composition that proceeded from harmonic structures conceived vertically over the bass line.

The fifth book focuses on pastoral poetry, almost exclusively the work of Guarini, often excerpted from his magnum opus, Il pastor fido (1590). Monteverdi brings together texts that focus not on the joys of shepherds and shepherdesses, but on the painful separation of lovers. It was the extremes of the poetry, after all, that inspired Monteverdi to write some of his most adventurous dissonant passages. Live performances of some of the more daring madrigals later published in Books 4 and 5 provoked the anger of the vengeful critic Artusi, who undertook one of the most famous polemical battles in music history. Even today, my eyes almost pop out of my head when I hear the chromatic strangeness that opens M'è più dolce il penar par Amarilla (track 11).

Longhini has also chosen to use only male singers in various combinations, with countertenors on the cantus, quintus, and altus parts: the reason that he cites in his notes for that decision -- involving sacred contrafacta of madrigals, sung by all-male ensembles -- does not make sense to me, but it hardly matters in terms of authenticity as far as I am concerned. (The example of the famous trio of women singers at the court of Ferrara would certainly be an argument for female voices but does not exclude using all male ones.) The sound on this disc is lovely, strongest not least because of the excellent diction and pronunciation of the Italian poetry (the singers are all Italians). Each phrase is carefully shaped to the poetic line, almost disappearing, for example, when lines end on unstressed syllables. Maximum expressive effect, which Monteverdi masterfully crafted in each musical response to the words, is rendered by the performers with remarkable unity. The countertenors float over the texture and can vanish above it when their parts are secondary. The sound is on the cold side, and there are occasional lapses of intonation, especially involving some of the lowest singing.

Concerto Italiano:

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Book 2


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Book 5


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Book 8, Pt. 1


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Book 8, Pt. 2
Alessandrini's group recorded the sixth book in the Palazzo Farnese in Rome last December. He accompanies some of the selections from the harpsichord, and in other cases the continuo is combined with or replaced by harp and theorbo. The voices, in combinations of as many as seven but usually five, are all excellent and join together in a perfectly balanced and impeccably tuned ensemble. Alessandrini leans toward the dramatic tendencies of Baroque music, which is the best approach in my opinion. The exaggeration of motifs is not as pronounced as in Concerto Italiano's excellent Four Seasons disc. However, there are expressive sighing motifs ("Misera, ohimè") in the Lamento d'Arianna and frenetic piling up of affective consonants, underscoring the onomatopoeia inherent in the poetry, as in the rapid iteration (looking forward to the stile concitato) of the sibillants in "di sospiri" in A Dio Florida bella.

The most affecting sections of this recording rely on more subtle means, as in the caressing of thorny dissonances at the end of Zefiro torna (evoking the "savage wild beasts" of the closing line) or the famous opening of Arianna's lament, Lasciatemi morire. Alessandrini decided to be faithful to the occasional grating dissonances in Monteverdi's score, numerous half-step discrepancies often corrected by editors. There are nice moments of typical Baroque techniques, like the echo (Una donna fra l'altre) and chiaroscuro contrasts, for example, musically evoking the sudden emotional shift at the break between octave and sestet in a Petrarchan sonnet (Zefiro torno). Florid ornamentation is left mostly to the passages of solo singing, as we hear Monteverdi reconciling the music he inherited, imitative polyphony, with the new monodic style. (In the 1614 edition, not all of the madrigals have basso continuo parts, and Alessandrini acknowledges that he used a later 1620 edition of Book 6, in which Monteverdi added continuo parts for all his madrigals.)

While we are wishing for groups to do a complete recording of the Monteverdi madrigals, I hope William Christie is thinking about it. My favorite recording of Monteverdi madrigals is still the single disc anthology released by Les Arts Florissants. The final madrigal in Book 5, a piece that joins instruments in a fuller capacity with voices, hints at what Monteverdi will do in Book 8, especially with the lengthy mini-opera madrigal cycle Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. Here Monteverdi found the perfect situation to exploit the literal battle found sometimes in violent passion: Tancredi and Clorinda, characters from Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, are both warriors, Tancredi from the Christian army and the battlemaiden Clorinda from the Muslim army. During the siege of Jerusalem, they not only fall in love but fight one another on the battle field.

Christie used some excellent singers on this recording, including soprano Sandrine Piau, tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, and baritone Nicolas Rivenq, who all went on to solo careers. Christie also chose some of the later Venetian duet madrigals, among the most beautiful things Monteverdi ever penned, including the joyous Zefiro torna, e di soavi accenti for two tenors (Book 9) and the self-referential tribute to virtuosic singing Mentre vaga Angioletta (Book 8), both with Fouchécourt and Mark Padmore. Piau and Claire Brua aren't bad either, on the soprano-bird duet O come sei gentile, caro augellino (Book 7). Piau sparkles and exalts the ears in her solo madrigals, Eri già tutta mia and Quel sguardo sdegnosetto (tracks 4 and 5, from the Scherzi musicali), while Brua is better under Piau's wings than by herself. Overall, the singing is not of the same remarkable homogeneity as the Concerto Italiano recording. Still, when the truly excellent instrumental performance is taken into account -- Christie's flair providing the note-perfect rendition of Monteverdi's military drama -- it will be hard to supplant this disc, even though it was recorded in 1992.

8 comments:

Akimon said...

This is a great compendium of Monteverdi releases- I have been planning to finally get started on Monteverdi's madrigals, after my two decades of Gesualdo infatuation it's time to branch out, and this write up will come in very handy. However, I can't resist plugging my favourite group that actually specializes in madrigals: La Venexiana, led by countertenor Claudio Cavina. Glossa label has issued several of LV's Monteverdi recordings, books 2, 6, 7 and 9. They have their own style, smooth, very natural (they do transpose if needed), often hauntingly beautiful and to my ears, their readings of Gesualdo approach unearthly perfection. They seem to be flying under the radar, at least compared to high profiles of Les Arts and Alessandrini's gang, but I was happy to see a mention of their recording of Gesualdo's Book Five in the Gramophone magazine "Best of the 2005" issue. They play live all over and when they came to NYC for a concert in 2004, it took place in the best possible venue- the Frick Collection; it was recorded by WNYC station and is available online:
http://bussotti.wnyc.org/music/articles/29063
Monika

Charles T. Downey said...

Monika, thanks for the nice comments. I know the name of La Venexiana, but I confess that I have not heard any of their recordings. Have they released a full set of the Monteverdi books? I found several of them. I'll put them on my "look for" list.

Charles T. Downey said...

I should clarify. You mention Books 2, 6, 7, and 9. I found Amazon listings for Books 3 and 8 released in recent years. I'm wondering if they have actually recorded the whole set. They apparently have plans to do so if they have not done it yet.

Also, I will start looking for their Marenzio discs. That's another great madrigal composer.

Akimon said...

They are definitely cherry picking- I have watched them over the years and it seems they like to record one book by Mad Carlo, then move on to Monteverdi and others. There is no whole set of Monteverdi that I know of, but there are definitely more than two Books available. Some are listed here:
http://www.glossamusic.com/artists/lavenexiana.htm
and US stores-wise, ArkivMusic has a good selection:
http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/albumList.jsp?name_id1=68094&name_role1=4&bcorder=4
(I'm gonna have to get that Strozzi set myself!)
The Glossa label is little funky, not too great with distibution I think, hence the trouble finding some records- I got some CDs from Amazon.uk- and they keep reissuing the albums in different covers. They have recently reissued the sublime Book Four of Gesualdo in a real nice digipack...
Monika

Charles T. Downey said...

Actually, I was not saying there was only 3 and 8, but that I had found those in addition to the ones you mentioned. It's more than halfway to a full set.

Speaking of Gesualdo, do you know any of his sacred music? We sang a Lenten motet of his this past spring, and it was great fun to sing.

Akimon said...

The work that first drew me to Gesualdo was the Tenebrae (Saturday ones, in the Harmonia Mundi recording with Herreweghe), and I graduated to madrigals from there. I really hope to at least hear one of the Gesualdo's settings of Tenebrae, or perform in it, which would be a blast, before I go. Along with Couperin's Tenebrae, these are among my most beloved pieces of music. They all seem often recorded by the likes of King's Singers, Christie et al but seldom performed live, which is a shame, because it is a such a great work, with added spectacle - extinguishing of the candles and so on- but I know that few years ago, there was one Loudon County chorus that tackled Gesualdo's Sabbato Sancto. I wonder how it went. Is it the relative difficulty of the score, or Gesualdo's reputation..?
Monika

Charles T. Downey said...

Monika, the difficulty of the score probably has something to do with it. Those chromatic shifts take intonational acumen. Also, I think that unfamiliarity with so much music of the (especially early) Renaissance is at fault. As long as choirs only sing John Rutter arrangements, someone like Gesualdo has little hope of making a mark. Let's not even talk about how little the Mass settings of Josquin or Ockeghem are performed, even though they are some of the most spectacular compositional tours de force I know.

Anonymous said...

Strongly echo akimon re La Venexiana. I'd add that they're an interesting contrast to Alessandrini's approach, which is highly dramatic to the point of being grating (in CM Bks. 5 & 6). La Venexiana strongly emphasizes smooth vocal blend, with its countertenor, in particular, serving as a bridge between the female and other male voices. Glossa's recording quality is excellent, too (as is Naive's for Concerto Italiano).

I love La Venexiana's Books 2 and 4 in particular. Glossa's website indicates the group is doing an integral CM project.

akimon, if you're a Gesualdo head--don't under any circumstances miss cpo's integral recording of his Books 1-3, by the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam.

Oh, can't resist a final, way under-the-radar tip: Luca Marenzio's (single) book of spiritual madrigals, on the Stradivarius label.