Gavin BRYARS (b. 1943)
All suon dell’acque scriva
Second Book of Madrigals [59:59]
Fourth Book of Madrigals, No. 1: A qualunque animale [11:21]
Vox Altera Ensemble/Massimiliano Pascucci
rec. 22-28 October 2008, Church of Santa Maria Assunta, Lugano, Switzerland
Gavin Bryars’ Second Book of Madrigals is a collection of fourteen unaccompanied pieces plus one more, entitled Marconi’s Madrigal, that uses some percussion. This disc also contains the first number of his Fourth Book of Madrigals.
A word, first of all, about the performances. The madrigals are sung one to a part. The Vox Altera Ensemble is an absolutely outstanding group, secure in intonation and with some extremely beautiful voices amongst the individual members. Their performances of this music cannot be faulted. The recording is very fine, though perhaps rather close and with surprisingly little sense of a church acoustic. The booklet contains two essays in English and Italian, one from the composer and one from the conductor, plus the sung texts in Italian with English translations. It is pretty to look at, but the decision to superimpose parts of it over photographs of architectural features and a choice of typeface bordering on the bizarre seems to have been made with the express view of discouraging the collector from reading it. Strange, but true. Nonetheless, I make no apology for quoting at length from it as a way of introducing this music.
The composer writes: “It was in 1998 that I embarked on a project to write 3, 4 and 5-part madrigals for the Hilliard Ensemble, working within the spirit and aesthetic of those from the Italian Renaissance…By coincidence the first four settings were written on Mondays and I took the decision to write the remaining nine on Mondays too…sometimes writing two, and once three, in a day. This strategy clearly committed me to writing at least seven books of madrigals. The Second Book (Tuesdays) was written for a 6-part group…These madrigals set Petrarch in the original 14th century Italian…I wrote 14 madrigals for this book…I also added an extra madrigal (“Marconi’s Madrigal”). This derives from a radiophonic piece commissioned by CBC Radio for its celebration of the centenary of the first transmission of a radio signal - a single letter - across the Atlantic Ocean by Marconi…in December 1901. I speculated that the “S” that was transmitted was, in reality, the first letter of a Petrarch sonnet…”
The conductor writes: “The composition technique is still that of…letting the form compose itself, with no prior formal planning, so that the musical sections are created independent of each other and characterized exclusively by their expressive adherence to the text … Bryars’ compositional language [is] seemingly austere and restrained, but actually with a daring use of a wide range of styles, from late Romantic tonal chromaticism, to a modal system reminding us of Gesualdo, Debussy or Martin, to dreamy jazz harmonies…His constant preference for slow tempos…indicates expanded, leisurely time, in which the music reverberates physically in space and time, enhancing its pauses.”
Of the six or seven collections of Italian Renaissance madrigals on my shelves, there probably isn’t one that I would listen to from beginning to end. Instead, I pick out a favourite madrigal or two, then add on a couple more that I know - or remember - less well. I won’t be listening to this disc all the way through in the future either, but for different reasons. The music is predominantly slow, and there is little in the way of variety of texture. Contrapuntal writing is sparing, the composer apparently preferring blocks of sound from different groups of voices, to contrast with the predominantly homophonic writing for the whole group. The Second Book is written for a group of three sopranos and three tenors. There is a lot of “close harmony” writing, some of it very close indeed, with frequent semitone clashes. The music journeys very widely through different keys, but at any given moment tends to firmly tonal. An exception is the seventh madrigal, which contains the phrase from which the disc takes its title and which begins with a list of rivers, the thought of which will never alleviate the poet’s pain. The subject is a painful one, which perhaps explains why the harmonic language is more chromatic and harsher in dissonance than is the general rule. The piece ends on a resounding major chord, though.
If there is a lack of variety in this music there are, nonetheless, many passages of great beauty, and in short doses it makes compelling listening. The ear is led from one lovely event to another by way of highly effective and sonorous choral writing. The harmonies, surprising though they sometimes are, are rich and beautiful. The overall atmosphere is tranquil and reflective, with only occasional - and short-lived - bursts of something more passionate. And though the booklet notes refer to the composer’s careful response to the text, this seems very generalised, given the overall uniformity of mood, more uniform, indeed, than the mood of the poetry. When, at the end of the seventh madrigal, the composer repeats the word “sospiri” (sighs), the listener’s attention is drawn in a way that singles out this piece of word-painting as unusual in context.
In spite of the frequently ravishing sound of this music, it can also be emotionally arid. I find this in particular in madrigal 9: the poet is captivated by the sight of a white doe, but I don’t sense anything approaching the feeling in the music. Madrigal 12 features another list - “flowers, leaves, grass, shadows” - during which one wonders why a particular word elicits a particular compositional response. Madrigal 13 is a song of mourning, but in spite of some more quite evident word painting, this listener heard no more sadness in the music than in many other pieces in the collection.
I have listened to all the pieces on this disc three times, and some individual pieces more than that, and so little difference does there seem between many of them that I don’t think I would necessarily recognise a given piece in a “blind” test. An exception is Madrigal 14, another song of mourning, in which the atmosphere is well captured and whose final bars bring a sense of closure, suggesting that the composer intends the book to be performed in order and perhaps in its entirety. Marconi’s Madrigal, too, has a particular character setting it apart from the others, though the discreet percussion elements - including a typewriter and wood blocks to re-create the sound of the Morse machine, plus, I think, some mouth noises from the singers - obviously contribute to this. The first madrigal from Book Four closes the disc, the bass voices appearing for the first time, and most welcome they are.
William Hedley 

The Italian Renaissance madrigal seen through contemporary eyes, superbly sung.