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Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
Il Quinto Libro de’ Madrigali (Madrigals Book 5, 1605)
Delitiæ Musicæ/Marco Longhini
rec. Chiesa di San Pietro in Vincili, Agazzo, Verona, Italy, 5-10 April 2003.
NAXOS 8.555311 [78:34]

 

I am always quite reassured to know that, much as composers are often misunderstood in our times, Claudio Monteverdi was similarly criticised in his day. To be sure, the church traditions from which Monteverdi was deviating were a powerful mould to be breaking, but penetrating popular taste while remaining true to avant-garde ideals will surely be seen in a similar light four hundred years from now – if we survive that long.

While canon Giovanni Maria Artusi’s initial attacks were based on a defence of traditional rules of music the time was clearly ripe for change. The published madrigals sold well, and by 1643 the fifth book had been reprinted no fewer than nine times. They were dedicated to Vincenzo Gonzaga, who was Duke of Mantua. Monteverdi sought patronage with the duke, who had already shown his appreciation of the composers work and whose influence existed beyond that of the less flexible church. Working in this sphere, Monteverdi revelled in the freedoms of the ‘Second Practice’, that which allowed the expressive qualities of poetry to be reflected freely in the music to which it was set.

Whenever I have heard extracts from this collection at concerts it has always been with a mixed vocal ensemble. Marco Longhini has taken research into performing practice and historical sources which indicate that no female singers would have been included in the ensemble in Monteverdi’s day. Women were not allowed to perform sacred or spiritual works, so the assumption is that the same would have applied to secular madrigals. An all-male cast involves transposing the music down sometimes as far as a fourth, so that those who already know the works may have to make some adjustments in their expectations. I know when I first played this disc as background to some summer reading my first impressions were of a bunch of guys running through the score to themselves in a quiet back room down the pub. This is an unfair description of course, but without the female voice illustrating female roles one has the challenge of deciphering some of the drama without those added contrasts in colour and range. 

Delitiæ Musicæ’s performance is refined and restrained. Recorded more or less ‘on location,’ the acoustic is resonant without being too ‘churchy’. Not all of the voices are equally attractive, but the general impression is of a well-integrated sound with soloists emerging from the choral ranks. In general these are fairly studiously academic interpretations, with genuinely authentic Italian singing bringing much truth in beauty, but not much to get the blood racing in the veins. This is partly in the nature of the music of course, but I’m reluctant to lay blame – if any – at Monteverdi’s door. There are a few moments of vocal freedom – the sighing glissandi in Ma tu, più che mai dura being a case in point. You may not notice it, but to me there is one mild case of temporal discomfort between the beautifully sung a capella M’è più dolce il penar and the instrumental opening of Ah, come a un vago sol, which only arises as they have been placed immediately after each other, with no forgiving gap to allow the ear to ‘forget’. In Book 5 you can literally hear Monteverdi’s stylistic turning point, and with the more virtuosic content of the second part Delitiæ Musicæ seem to have a little more intensity, and certainly revel in the extravagant word painting and dynamic contrasts. I’m still not sure I shall become completely accustomed to countertenor Alessandro Carmignani’s vocal colour, but can certainly admire his purity and phrasing – this is very much a point for individual taste. All of the accompaniments are sensitively played, and are well balanced and relatively unobtrusive.

With the usual bargain pricing this essentially beautiful recording - complete with excellent notes by Longhini and all texts given in Italian and translated into English - has to come with a safe recommendation. The operative word for me here is however ‘safe’. It’s a tough call, as these are without doubt scholarly readings and ones with which one could happily live for a long time. The other issues in this series have been praised highly, and those who are collecting the set certainly need have no qualms when adding this disc to their shelves. I may be wrong to be so picky or I might just have eaten too much pizza for dinner, but I felt this recording just lacked the one spark, that deep-seated molten core of ever elusive Monteverdi passion which makes the spine tingle and the hairs on the nape of the neck re-align to magnetic north.

Dominy Clements                     

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