Aureole etc.




Golden Age singers

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If it’s the Czech works you’re after, do not hesitate

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
Madrigals Book 2 (1590) (Complete)
Delitae Musicae/Marco Longhini
Recorded in the Chiesa di San Briccio, Verona, Italy, July 2001
NAXOS 8.555308 [62.24]
Madrigals Book 3 (1592) (Complete)
Delitae Musicae/Marco Longhini
Recorded in the Chiesa di San Pietro in Vincoli, Azzago, Verona, Italy, May 2002
NAXOS 8.555309 [69.06]



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I can remember a time, and no doubt readers can as well, when Monteverdi's madrigals were mostly available through anthologies. These usually featured regularly performed items from books four to eight. Then came 'The Consort of Musick' under Anthony Rooley who, with the support first of L'Oiseau Lyre and later of Virgin, recorded all eight books. Now, we have the excitement of several different early music groups tackling this never-endingly fascinating repertoire. There is a huge choice in the catalogue.

Delitae Musicae under the experienced Italian early music specialist Marco Longhini have recorded the first three books for Naxos and will, presumably record the remaining books. Their approach is unique: the voices are all male. To quote Marco Longhini's notes: "We know that women used to sing secular (not sacred) music at Italian courts, but in our opinion this may well have been the exception rather than the rule; we wanted, with philological accuracy, to offer an interesting alternative to previous recordings". So the question is: ‘does it come off?’

There is another factor however which is not unique but certainly unusual: the use of certain carefully chosen instruments - lutes, harpsichord and bass viol. This needs to be thrown into the equation. Longhini again: "... we have chosen to work with a basso seguente accompaniment, mean tone temperament and male altos to be consistent with the interpretation decisions discussed in the previous album." One should read his notes for Book 1 to grasp further details. Because male voices are used most of the madrigals are transposed down, certainly a whole tone and often a minor third. This works well when a darker tone is needed. However not all madrigals are suited to this tuning: for example 'Se tu mi lasso' in Book 2. The lower pitch does however allow us to enjoy even more the superb basso profundo of Walter Testolin when below the clef.

Like all interpretations the results are not always satisfactory and in my view some odd decisions have occasionally been made, but performers must experiment, and record their experiments to allow listeners as well as themselves to attempt to reach further conclusions. It would be a poor world indeed if performers were too hand-tied by scholars, critics or record companies to try out new ideas.

Book 2 includes settings of poems by the great and influential Torquato Tasso as well as Casone, Alberti and Bentivoglio. It opens with a double madrigal 'Non si levava' going into 'E dicea l'una sospirando'. Book 3 takes this even further with the innovation of two triple madrigal sets using words from Tasso's 'Gerusalemme liberata'. These are well spaced in the collection and in their intensity represent a major landmark in Monteverdi's development.

Book 2 is not as polyphonic as Book 1 but the Renaissance is still with us. The music is text-driven and therefore word-painting. or perhaps I should say ‘expressivity’. is vital. Rinaldo Alessandrini directing Concerto Italiano (CI) on Opus 111 (30-111), whose recording from 1994 caused quite a stir when new, lingers on the details more than Marco Longhini and Delitae Musicae (DM) and can often be more expressive. The wonderfully anguished soprano of Rossana Bertini is unbeatable and I wouldn't want to be without her contribution to the piece which opens the book 'Non si levara'. CI are a capella throughout the recording which gives them a greater freedom of expression. DM is quite often accompanied. When a lute is used it seems to be discreet and appropriate, as in No. 4 'Dolcissimi legami', but when a harpsichord appears, as in No. 2 in Book 3 'O Come e gran martire', immediately the effect is stiffer and less expressive. CI, in this madrigal, is also lighter and gives the setting more lift with a faster tempo.

Denis Arnold writing the BBC Music Guide to Monteverdi Madrigals in 1967 described Book 3 as ‘mannerist’, which is possibly a reflection more on the kinds of performances he might have come across at that time. A pity he hadn't heard 'The Consort of Musick’ (CM) in their 1993 recording on Virgin (7 59283 2). Their approach, does not in the least make the pieces sound 'mannerist' but pure and almost chaste as you might expect, especially with Emma Kirkby in such fine form. They are less intense than CI but certainly convey drama when necessary. They tend to take an overall view of each madrigal; they see the wood, as it were, and not so much the individual trees. No instruments are used.

DM take considerable care with the words and try to express each meaning with detailed thought. They also enjoy more ornamentation especially at cadence points. Word-painting abounds in these madrigals. From Book 2 'Non sono in queste rive', at the word 'L'interrompano' (interrupted), notably uses broken melody and delicious suspensions. Just as impressive, from Book 3, is 'Se per estremo ardore'. At the words 'like a phoenix rising' the climbing phrase is grounded by the lower harmonies.

Monteverdi ends the second book with the rather archaic 'Cantai un tempo' as if to say ‘this is the normal style; now see what I have achieved before it’. Although the renaissance is still with us, these pieces and certainly those of Book 3 mark its climax. The Baroque is to appear all too suddenly in Book 5 twelve years later, and Opera was to appear just seven years after Book 3.

Naxos's booklet notes, in both cases by Marco Longhini, are far more detailed and helpful than either those for CI or CM and this will be a real bonus for the first time listener. I should add also that they are not particularly technical. Texts are given in Italian and in English.

So, to sum up. It seems churlish to choose one recording over another. Each of these consorts contributes their own unique character to the madrigals. Delitae Musicae will happily take its place on my shelf alongside the others. If I had to decide on either their Book 2 or Book 3 then the latter would narrowly win as they seem to have matured a little more in the later collection.

Don't hesitate; buy and enjoy and look forward to Book Four.

Gary Higginson



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