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
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
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
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
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.