Differing views on the quality of Palestrina’s madrigal publications have been presented over the years. The composer himself recoiled from them commenting in a preface to a motet collection of 1569 ‘whatever gifts I possess, although they may be of little account, will in future always be devoted to something more dignified and serious, worthy of a Christian king”. This clearly was nonsense as although his first book had originally appeared as early as 1554 he produced a second as late as 1591, knowing how popular the form had become.
As far back as 1938 when Eric Blom wrote an analysis and biography of Palestrina for the ‘Master Musicians’ series he comments on the composer’s “serious turn of mind”. He agrees that “some of the madrigals, especially the early ones, are undoubtedly rather heavy”. However, Jerome Roche in his 1972 book ‘The Madrigal’ (Hutchinson) writes that there are “many attractive qualities to his madrigals that are entirely secular in inspiration”. So perhaps it all depends on the performances.
The background to Il Primo Libro de’ Madrigale
is a little complicated. It was first printed in 1555 and first published in Florence. Later Venice led the race in madrigal publications but the Roman school was quickly developed. Sadly no copies of the original edition survive but there were reprints in 1568, 1570 and 1574. Sometimes other madrigals were added such as ones that had been published in miscellaneous collections before 1555.
This Tactus recording is of the 1596 collection which is the most complete and was published two years after the composer’s death. As the title page says “Novament ristampato in Venetia 1596 appresso l’herede di Girolamo Scoto”. In other words this was a new setting made by Scotto who had cornered the Roman composer’s publication for the Venetian market.
Although I know little of the second book it is considered to be a lesser collection from the point of view of overall inspiration although it seems that Palestrina was very attached to all of his secular works. Incidentally do not get confused with what have become known separately as Palestrina’s Sacred Madrigals
I have some reservations concerning Concerto Italiano’s performances or in some cases the sound they made in 1992. This may come as something of a surprise to you because their recordings of Monteverdi, for example, are superb. This 1992 recording was one of their first and for the first six madrigals the top part is taken by a rather hooty counter-tenor, Claudio Cavina. In the remainder the top part is sung by Gloria Banditelli who is mostly reliable. I mention the cantus
part especially because the balance of the group does tend to lean towards this part. Instead of it being an equal balance it dominates a little too much at times. This is particularly disappointing because less than two years later in April and May 1994 Concerto Italiano recorded Monteverdi’s Second Book of Madrigals and Marenzio’s First book of Four Part Madrigals for Opus 111. This, quite rightly, attracted great acclaim for Concerto Italiano who boasted Rosana Bertini on the top line; her voice balances and expresses the words to perfection.
To make matters worse, for me anyway, no texts are provided by Tactus and one is told to search them out on www.tactus.it/testi
. Try it yourself. The problem with this is, where do you keep these pages, as they will not fit into the booklet. Whenever you play the disc you must try to remember where you have put them. Anyway Tactus has an especially challenging website to navigate; in fact I failed to find the disc. Without the words almost half of the appreciation of madrigals is lost. Even in Palestrina the words dictate the flow and the musical material.
I wouldn’t however want to give you the impression that this disc is best overlooked. To a certain extent Concerto Italiano here are victims of their own later success but there is much that is sympathetically done. True, some of the madrigals are rather humdrum and the performers possible feel so too. You can hear this in Amor che meco
and Ne spera i dolci.
Particularly touching and pleasing are the madrigals in which the lutenist Andrea Damiani is involved. Especially sensitively sung are Quai rime fur si chiaro
and its companion Ecc’oscurati I chiari raggi
To give an example of a text for which I can offer a translation let's look at La ver l’aurora che si dolce l’aura
. This begins ‘Towards dawn, when so gently the breeze blows’. Its pastoral mood continues later '... and the little birds sing / so sweetly, the thoughts within my soul / move me towards she who holds my feelings all in her power'. I know you’ve heard it all before but Palestrina paints the text with much individuality and beauty.
As this is, I believe, the only complete recording now available of Palestrina’s first book then it's worth having, especially when you hear the group’s sensitivity in the last madrigal Ma voi fioriti
. That said, I do hope that in the near future another group tackles these pieces with a little more aplomb and character.
1. Deh, hor foss’io col vago della luna
2. S’il dissi mai, ch’io veng’in odio a quella
3. Queste saranno ben lagrime, e questi
4. Che non fia che giamai dal cor si sgombri
5. Rime, da i sospir miei nati e dal pianto
6. Lontan dalla mia diva
7. Nessun visse giamai più di me lieto
8. La ver l’aurora che sì dolce l’aura
9. Chiara, sì chiaro è de’ vostr’occhi il sole
10. Chi stinguerà il mio foco
11. Donna vostra mercede
12. Già fu chi m’ebbe cara e volentieri
13. Che debbo far, che mi consigli Amore
14. Over de sensi è priva
15. Amor, fortuna e la mia mente schiva
16. Ne spero i dolci dì tornin’indietro
17. Gitene liete rime ov’or si siede
18. Mentr’à le dolci & le purpuree labbra
19. Amor che meco in quest’ombre ti stavi
20. Ecc’ove gionse prima e poi s’assise
21. Vaghi pensier che così passo passo
22. Mentre ch’al mar descenderanno i fiumi
23. Quai rime fur sì chiare
24. Ecc’oscurati i chiari raggi al Sole
25. Rara beltà non mai più vista in terra
26. Questo doglioso stil colmo di pianto
27. Mai fu più crud’o spietata morte
28. Privo di fed’oltra l’usato corso
29. Ma voi fioriti e honorati colli