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.
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.
Book 8, Pt. 1
Book 8, Pt. 2
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.