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Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
Tempro la cetra (1619) [9:08]
Il ballo delle ingrate (1608) [34:10]
Tirsi e Clori (1615) [9.20]
Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (1624) [22:59]
John Potter, tenor; Barbara Borden, soprano; Päivi Järviö, mezzo soprano; Harry van der Kamp bass; Suzie le Blanc, soprano; Dougnal Nasrawi, tenor; Cesare Righetti, baritone.
Tragicomedia/Stephen Stubbs
Rec. Kleiner Sendesaal, Sender Freieis, Berlin, 21-23 September 1992
WARNER APEX 2564 61781-2 [78:01]


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Do not be deceived by the fact that this is a budget price CD. It is actually one of the key releases in the Monteverdi canon and as such it is an essential purchase for all 17th century opera and madrigal enthusiasts. Let me explain.

Monteverdi is one of the most important composers in the history of music. He was born into an environment where the contrapuntal style of Palestrina was still at its height. The problem of writing for many voices with the corresponding musical structure and melodic interest had all but been solved. However there was a missing ingredient. The music often lacked ‘expression’ and ‘life.’ This is not to belittle the achievements of the great polyphonic choirs – only to indicate that it was not possible to display individual emotions in this kind of musical ensemble. Monteverdi himself wrote much fine music in this earlier style – in fact it amounts to some nine volumes. But there was a sense in which he did not consider them satisfactory.

At the same time, composers in Florence were experimenting with a new form of music. They harked back to the old Greek dramas by giving expression to individual emotions and thoughts by use of a single voice, singing a melody with instrumental accompaniment. These perhaps were the very first ‘operas’ although much of it was dry and still lacked ‘living’ expression.

It was Claudio Monteverdi who began to change the rules radically. He felt that he could not just tinker with the old conventions. And no academic rules were set in stone. Everything could be changed in order to make the music realistic. This resulted in tying the words so closely to the melody that it would be like ‘a soulless body’ if the words were removed. It was to be the libretto itself that dictated what choice of notes and harmony were used. The music would evolve from the particular sense of the dramatic. The orchestra was to be used for dramatic effect. ‘Pizzicato’ is believed to have been one of his inventions; trills were used to add interest. Monteverdi developed a style of recitative that has never really been bettered. The balance of between words and music was supreme.

During the first half of the 17th century Monteverdi composed a series of full-length music dramas. These are regarded as the foundation of what we now call ‘opera’. It appears that between the composition of Orfeo (1607) and the L’Incoronazione di Poppea (1642) there are some sixteen or so other works for stage. Many of these are now lost. Furthermore there is a huge gap in our understanding of the development of his musical language due to this loss. Effectively musical scholars have a lacunae of about 33 years during which the composer was busy creating new stage works about which very little is actually known.

What this present CD delivers is a few surviving links in this broken chain. It allows us to glimpse what the operas were like in the intervening years.

The first work is the Tempro la Cetra (1619). This is effectively an aria in the sense understood by the Florentine composers of the day; it is a set of strophic variations. It sets four verses. The singer develops his theme whilst the continuo plays much the same music throughout. The argument of the work is the singer’s desire to sing praises to Mars but he is unable to do this because his heart is full of love. The vocal line becomes more complex as the aria progresses. Yet throughout the exposition of the story the balance of the parts is near perfect. This is a fine introduction to Monteverdi’s operatic style.

The ‘ballet’ Tirsi e Clori (1615) was composed for the people of Mantua. It is not actually dramatic music although composed for the stage. In fact it is quite passive in its style – a modern reviewer would say ‘laid back.’ There are three sections to this lovely work. The piece opens with Thyrsis attempting to persuade Chloris to dance and naturally she is playing hard to get! Thyrsis is quite enthusiastic in his gay song, however Chloris is much more subdued. The duet between the lovers is particularly gorgeous. There is a small ‘walk on’ part for a chorus of shepherds with their instruments. The importance of this work is the obvious move away from the Florentine recitative to that of a well controlled and balanced aria.

Il ballo delle ingrate is by far the most substantial work on this CD. It was composed in 1608 for the entertainment of the Mantua court. It is written in what is regarded as the ‘French’ style. The ballet opens with a brief instrumental prelude followed by a dialogue between Venus and Amor. Here the latter tries to persuade Venus to have a chat with Pluto and effect the release of all women who have ‘who have preserved hard hearts’ against their lovers to be allowed to return to the earth. Of course, Venus is successful and the ‘ingrate,’ as these ladies were called, return to the surface of the earth to warn the matrons in the audience of their impending fate! All very politically incorrect but nonetheless charming and thoroughly enjoyable. And the bass, Pluto, is absolutely divine!

The last work on this CD is also perhaps the best known – the Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (1624) – The Fight of Tancred and Clorinda. This work which is really a mini opera was published in the eighth book of madrigals. Monteverdi himself points out that this was a ‘concert’ opera - they were not meant to be performed with scenery, props or costumes. The setting is supposed to be a battlefield!

The programme notes cite the reasons why this is probably the most important work on this CD. Here we find a true music-drama. There is a "vastly expanded palette of orchestral dramatics, the new vocabulary of string techniques (including pizzicato) planted myriad seeds for the future of Monteverdi’s dramatic works and for the future of opera in general."

The warlike nature of the work makes it totally different from the preceding three somewhat pastoral pieces. It is from this root that the great music dramas of Verdi and Wagner would one day burst into flower.

This is a particularly gorgeous CD. Each work is a little gem, if not a miniature masterpiece. The performance by Tragicomedia in this 1992 recording is tremendous. I let a friend of mine listen to this CD. He is not particularly impressed by opera in general and Monteverdi in particular. However after hearing these works he is converted. I will have to watch my copy of this CD or it may disappear!

John France

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