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S & H Concert Review

Monteverdi, Madrigals of Love and War: Le Concert d’Astree, dir. Emmanuelle Haim; John Mark Ainsley, Paul Agnew, Patrizia Ciofi. Barbican Hall, Friday March 5th 2004 (ME)

When Monteverdi published his Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi in 1638, he almost certainly envisaged them as being performed to a small audience in an intimate setting, and indeed that’s how many of us first came to know this music – a vivid memory of mine is hearing Emma Kirkby and Nigel Rogers performing it in York sometime around 1977, with the audience sometimes outnumbered by the orchestra in tiny rooms like the upstairs chamber in the Treasurer’s house. Does it work in a vast and soulless space like the Barbican? Yes, when it is sung and played like this: the tenors John Mark Ainsley and Paul Agnew are without equals in this kind of florid music today, and Emmanuelle Haim, whilst I still hesitate to find her as fascinating as my colleagues do, directed her ensemble in an admirably unfussy way, taking her cues from the singers – which was just as well, since Ainsley in particular seldom seems to take much notice of what a conductor is doing anyway.

Many of the large audience had presumably been lured to the Barbican by Mlle Haim’s presence, and I’m sure that a lot of the singing was a complete revelation to them – and a good thing too, if they then go away wanting to hear more, but it’s very sad that Haim seems to have recognized Ainsley’s unique qualities rather late in the day, since although he would have been the obvious choice as her Orfeo on the new recording, that part came the way of Ian Bostridge, who is about as suitable for this music as Ainsley would be for something like ‘Di quella Pira.’ In fact, Bostridge was originally scheduled to sing in this very concert, until, we are told, ill health (or good sense?) intervened. I mean no disrespect to Bostridge, who is a wonderful singer of Schubert and Britten and much else, but the prospect of him anguishing his way through Testo’s frighteningly taxing narrative was not a happy one. In the event, we were treated to some truly exciting singing by two tenors whose voices may cover the same registers but whose tone, phrasing, articulation and stage presence are very different. The striking Italian soprano Patrizia Ciofi was either having a bad evening or is simply out of their league.

‘Interrote speranze’ was a sombre opening, sung with wonderful unity by the tenors, and it was followed by Agnew’s ideally passionate ‘Ecco di dolci raggi:’ what a joy to hear this dulcet, mellifluous voice with its genuine trill and its confident but never overbearing presentation. The tremendous ‘Si dolce è ‘l tormento’ was given to Ainsley, thus providing a direct comparison between these voices: where Agnew’s is naturally warm, soft, sweet and caressing in phrase, Ainsley’s is the kind of voice often called ‘plangent’ by those who don’t actually know what this word means (it’s having a loud, deep, mournful sound, and comes from the Latin plangere, meaning beating the breast – anyone less likely to indulge in such behaviour would be hard to imagine) but might be better described as plaintive – this is not to say that it is thin, far from it, but it has a kind of elegant spareness which makes it highly distinctive, and of course it is used with such at times almost incredible virtuosity as to render it unique, at least amongst currently active singers. The lines ‘Se fiamma d’amore / Già mai non senti / Quel rigido core’ were typical in their fluent phrasing and quiet intensity.

‘Ohimè, ch’ io cado, ohimè’ was sung by Patrizia Ciofi as though it were a comedy piece – perhaps it is, and I have totally misinterpreted it, but to me lines like ‘Lasso, del veccho ardour / Conosco l’orme ancor’ don’t really lend themselves to this kind of mugging. She has a very dramatic mode of delivery, replete with gesture, but her voice is rather monochrome in timbre, lacking in subtlety and poise at least on this hearing: no doubt I’ll soon have the chance to hear her in better form and write more positively, since she has a full calendar for the year ahead. She showed her dramatic strengths in Carissimi’s ‘Ferma, lascia ch’io parli’ although her tone seemed to me rather hard and lacking in colour. Ainsley provided an object lesson in fluency, delicate gradation of tone colour and sheer virtuosity in Frescobaldi’s ‘Dunque dovrò’ which would have made a better end to the first half.

No complaints about the placing of the first piece after the interval: Marino’s words and Monteverdi’s music in ‘Tempro la Cetra’ express very similar sentiments to those of Bruchmann and Schubert’s ‘An die Leier’ - ‘…per cantar gli onori / Di Marte….mai risuoni altro che Amore / ‘Ich will von Atreus Söhnen … Nur Liebe im Erklingen’ and both pieces are perfect first songs: the singer expresses the desire to praise gods and heroic deeds, but his lyre expresses his own underlying desire to sing only of love. Paul Agnew sang it superbly: the technical assurance is all there, even if it is not quite at Ainsley’s spectacular level, and his final line, ‘In grembo a Citerea dorma al tuo canto’ was perfection, the voice’s beautiful diminuendo at ‘canto’ shading gently into the organ’s soft phrases so that for a moment voice and keyboard seemed like one.

The evening’s main work was Monteverdi’s ‘Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda’ which the composer saw as reviving the ancient Greek differentiation between the three styles of emotion – anger, equilibrium and the touching, and these three were all ideally provided in Ainsley’s narrative. What distinguishes great singing in this repertoire is no different from that which marks it out in others: when you hear Pavarotti almost sounding hungry for the notes as he leaps onto them in ‘Questo o Quella,’ you are hearing exactly the same kind of relish, confidence and desire for the music as you hear when Ainsley sings a phrase like ‘…e ne l’oblio fatto si grande’ – and it is exactly the same kind of facility with narrative which makes this singer the ideal Evangelist and which provides Monteverdi singing of such freshness, consummate technical skill and sheer excitement. He told the story of the ill-fated warriors as though it had been written yesterday, his use of contrasts between the stately and the frenetic beautifully counterpointed by the continuo, and he made every word tell, not only in the exact depiction of ‘..e ‘l sangue avido beve’ (he avidly drinks her blood) but most vividly in the torrent of notes which Monteverdi pours out in ‘E las vendetta poi l’onta rinova…’ He was rightly given a huge ovation for this piece of superb singing, and Paul Agnew’s contribution as Tancredi shone equally brightly: in such a context it was a pity that when Ciofi’s Clorinda sang that final heavenly cadence she was musically descending below the note rather than soaring up to it.

Haim’s musicians provided clean, finely articulated and committed support throughout, with some exceptional playing by the violins in the brief instrumental interludes: in all, an evening of the highest musical and dramatic excellence. Those lucky enough to have access to the city of Lille, amongst whom I am glad to say I am one, are sure of further delights in the coming season when Le Concert d’Astree takes up residency at the Opera House there.


Melanie Eskenazi




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