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Monteverdi Madrigals, Book 8

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Monteverdi, Madrigali Guerrieri et Amorosi, Libro VIII, Concerto Italiano, Rinaldo Alessandrini (released on October 31, 2006)
A few months ago, I reviewed two new releases of madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi, as well as two new recordings of the composer's Vespers of 1610 earlier this month. Monteverdi is becoming more popular in live performance, too. The Aix-en-Provence Festival has programmed a series of performances for this summer, stagings of Monteverdi madrigals by Willy Decker, with Kenneth Weiss conducting the Académie européenne de musique (July 1 to 18, 2007). Along with the numerous stagings of the composer's opera Orfeo next year, celebrating the 400th anniversary of its premiere in 1607, Monteverdi's star is on the ascent.

Very good news, then, that Rinaldo Alessandrini is indeed planning to make a complete set of recordings of Monteverdi's madrigals with Concerto Italiano, although not in a systematic way. This box set of the eighth book combines re-releases of the two Libro VIII discs that the group made in 1997 and 1998 with a third CD recorded in the Palazzo Farnese last December. Book 8 (of nine volumes of madrigals) is the largest collection Monteverdi published while he was alive. Much of its music is the most forward-thinking in the composer's corpus of works, although some pieces were republished from earlier collections or composed much earlier. By this point, after incorporating the basso continuo in the fifth book, Monteverdi's madrigals are mostly for solo voices, cast often as mini-operas.

Indeed, in his introduction to the madrigal cycle known as the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, which opens this recording, Monteverdi outlines recommended stage directions if a performance is staged dramatically (based on the work's court premiere). As if to heighten the operatic quality, Alessandrini introduces many of the dramatic works with an instrumental sinfonia, in this case a string sonata by Dario Castello. The story, taken from Canto XII of Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, uses the mortal combat of the Christian soldier and Muslim battlemaiden as a metaphor for sexual union:
Domenico Tintoretto, Tancredi battezza Clorinda, Houston Museum of Fine Arts, 1586-1600
Domenico Tintoretto, Tancredi Baptizing Clorinda, Houston Museum of Fine Arts, 1586-1600
Three times the knight grips the woman in his strong arms and the same number of times does she break free of those strong bonds [...] weary and panting, both must draw apart at last and draw a breath after a long labor.
Baritone Roberto Abbondanza's Testo (narrator) matches the excitement of the battle sounds from the instruments, the rapid tremulo of the stile concitato. As she lies dying, Elisa Franzetti's Clorinda begs Tancredi, her voice almost a whisper, to baptize her, which perfectly captures what Tasso writes of what Tancredi hears ("a strange appeal, a plaintive gentleness, that to his ear descends and melts all anger").

Representing another side of the combat of love is Il ballo delle Ingrate, which is the other half of the first CD. Addressed to courtly women, Pluto summons up from Hades the souls of haughty women who have refused love (the Ingrate Women of the title). Venus makes this request of Pluto, at the request of her son Cupid, in order to show "the punishment cruel beauty can expect." Bass Daniele Carnovich is in puissant and profondo voice for the deep rumbling part of Pluto. The shades of the proud women appear, to the sounds of a magnificent duet by Cupid and Venus (Francesca Russo Ermolli and Rosa Dominguez, respectively), and are forced to dance a sorrowful Entrata e Ballo with Pluto. Sent back to their punishment, a group of the Ingrate Women make an impassioned plea to the women in the audience to learn pity and not "hoard their beauty."

Monteverdi by Concerto Italiano:

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Book 2

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Book 5

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Book 6
The second CD contains some of the more traditional madrigals, pieces for chamber vocal ensemble. The famous Lamento della Ninfa, text by Rinuccini, receives a fine performance, with a clear-voiced Rossana Bertini as the spurned nymph who laments over a tenderly played ground bass pattern, with the chorus of sympathetic male voices. The quasi-sadistic aesthetic incarnation of a woman's tragic sadness for a male audience is as old as the hills, going back at least to the Virgin's torment in Lamentation scenes and Ovid's Heroides. Of course, it is one of the major tropes of opera, as is the struggle of war and love for supremacy in a man's heart, the two drives of existence that Freud would later identify as thanatos and eros. The opening piece ("Let others sing of love") is balanced by a later madrigal ("Let others sing of Mars"), and the metaphors of love and battle are intentionally jumbled ("a glance defeated me, a tress made me captive" or "Make yourself a warrior, my heart, and do not fear the mortal wounds of love's arrows").

The madrigals on the third CD continue to push the envelope of the genre, including another Ballo and the pastoral strophic tune Su, su, su, pastorelli vezzosi. A favorite is Mentre vaga Angioletta, a poem by Guarini, which is essentially a madrigal about a woman singing a madrigal. Monteverdi uses the text as a sort of primer on how to set the textual contrasts with effective madrigalisms. All in all, there is rarely anything less than beautiful in this set, and some tracks stand out as exceptional. As we expect of him, Alessandrini captures the Baroque vitality of this music, with life rippling in all those jaunty rhythms. He has a truly fine group of singers at his disposal, although it would take me a long time to make sense of how the membership of Concerto Italiano has changed over the past ten years (lists of performers' initials follow each track). There are a few moments of minor tuning imprecision, notably in Dolcissimo uscignolo (CD 2, track 16), which is from the 1990s, and the tenor voices are sometimes uneven, as in Non partir, ritrosetta (CD 3, track 10), but nobody's perfect.

Naïve OP 30435


Anonymous said...

Very informative review-- it's good to have a complete Book 8 from Concerto Italiano, even though Alessandrini's personnel has changed significantly through the years.

He seems consistently to favor drama (and the occasional rough vocal edges) over the immaculate blend of groups like La Venexiana.

With new recordings of Vespers, and three complete madrigal cycles now pending, Monteverdi's having a Moment-- and it only took 400 years!

Charles T. Downey said...

I'm working on a review of the La Venexiana cycle, but getting the CDs on my desk is taking a while. Thanks for reading!