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L'arte del Madrigale
Ensemble Voces Suaves (Lia Andres, Christina Boner-Sutter (soprano), Gabriel Jublin, Jan Thomer (alto), Dan Dunkelblum, Raphael Hhn, Paolo Borgonovo (tenor), Tobias Wicky (baritone), Davide Benetti (bass), Ori Harmelin (theorbo))
rec. April 2016, Espace culturel C.J. Bonnet, Jujurieux, France DDD
Texts and translations included
AMBRONAY AMY306 [62:24]

In the second half of the 16th century the madrigal was the main form of secular vocal music in Italy. It had its origin in the frottola, which was by far the most popular genre in Italy from roughly 1450 to 1530. It is a collective term for texts of various forms and character. Its origin was the practice of reciting poems to a musical accompaniment which was widespread in the mid-15th century. Poet, singer and performer were usually the same, and the accompaniment was mostly improvised. The practice of improvising ad lyram, as it was called, was even part of the pastime of the aristocracy.

The madrigal was different in several respects. Madrigals were mostly sung without instrumental accompaniment. They were written by the main composers of the time, such as Giaches de Wert, Luca Marenzio, Jacques Arcadelt and Cipriano de Rore. These were mostly in the service of an aristocrat, and it is at the aristocratic courts - or in the homes of citizens from the upper echelons of society - that madrigals were sung. The composers often made use of texts from the pen of some of the most renowned poets of their time - Torquato Tasso, Giovanni Battista Guarini and Ottavio Rinuccini - or of the past, such as Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375). Whereas in frottolas there was little connection between text and music, composers of the madrigals from the late 16th century paid much attention to the text and aimed at illustrating them with various means, such as musical figures and harmony.

Many madrigals are of a pastoral nature. Characters, which often turned up in pastoral poetry, such as Thyrsis and Clori, and Cupid, the god of love, often make their appearances in madrigals. Love is a central subject, including the many trials and tribulations of it. The latter explains why some texts have a rather gloomy content. One of the most telling examples is Sento che nel partire by Carlo Gesualdo: "On leaving you I feel my heart is close to death. Thus I, a miserable wretch, cry constantly: This feels like death". It comes as no surprise that Gesualdo uses chromaticism here to illustrate the text.

Many madrigals include examples of text illustration. Giaches de Wert opens his madrigal Sorgi e rischiara al tuo apparir il cielo with a marked rising figure: "Arise, light up the sky with thy approach", whereas the second part begins with a descending figure on the text "Descends, Hymen!" This madrigal was written for a special occasion: the marriage of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga of Mantua and Margherita Farnese. The same is the case with In quel parte si ratto which ends with the lines: "O Gonzagas! O Farnesi, O Margherita! How high our expectations of your brood!" As Wert was in the service of the Gonzagas, he also composed a number of madrigals, which celebrate the virtues of this duchy, its landscapes and its rulers. Vincenzo's father was a great lover of music and also composed a considerable number of sacred and secular pieces. One of them is the madrigal Padre, che'l ciel, la terra e'l tutto reggi.

Nearly all the madrigals recorded here are written in the stile antico which is dominated by counterpoint. Much changed around 1600: the music became more dramatic, the performance more declamatory and music was considered the servant of the text. However, the differences with the madrigals by composers of previous generations were not as large as Giulio Caccini, the main advocate of the seconda prattica, suggested. Several madrigals in the programme include dramatic elements, for instance by juxtaposing two groups in the form of a dialogue. The two opposing groups are represented by different voices, for instance high versus low. Tirsi morir volea by Giaches de Wert is one example. That said, Monteverdi's strongly declamatory T'amo mia vita from his fifth book of 1605 is a telling example of the stylistic change, which took place around 1600. The stile nuovo found its precursor in the madrigals Luzzasco Luzzaschi composed for the Concerto delle dame, an ensemble of three ladies who sung at the court of Ferrara and whose reputation spread across Italy. One of these ladies was Anna Guarini, daughter of the famous poet. Luzzasco is represented here with I' mi son giovinetta, a madrigal for two sopranos and basso continuo, on a text by Boccaccio.

Whereas madrigals were mostly of a serious nature, composers also wrote more lighthearted pieces. Some concentrated on genres known as canzonas or balletti. Giovanni Giacomo Gastoldi was particularly famous for his balletti, such as Cantiam lieti, cantiamo. This piece was included in an edition of madrigals for eight voices by various authors of 1597. That shows that there was no watershed between the various genres. The three pieces from the pen of Lodovico Agostini are all taken from the collection of Canzoni alla napolitana of 1574. These pieces stand out for their lively rhythms, closely related to dance, and onomatopoeia. All'arm'all'arme by Agostino is a good example, with its fanfare figures on the opening phrase: "To arms, to arms, my trusty thoughts". In the oeuvre of Agostini we find some satirical parodies. Maybe Vita della mia vita is one of them. This could explain why the lively rhythm is used for a text like this: "Alas, your departure will make me take my own life".

The French label Ambronay regularly releases discs with recordings by young ensembles. This is the result of an European cooperation project under the name eemerging which - according to the booklet - "is the natural continuation of the Young Ensemble Residences developed since 2009 at the Centre culturel de rencontre d'Ambronay". Each year the most promising ensembles are selected and are offered professional training and assistance in building an international career through concerts and promotion. After three years of support the best ensembles have the opportunity to make their first professional recording. The present disc is the result of Voces Suaves being selected for the years 2014 to 2016. The selection is well deserved. Voces Suaves was founded in 2012 in Basel and comprises mostly singers who have been educated at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. They focus on vocal music of the renaissance and baroque eras, and madrigals are one of their specialities.

They deserve much praise for their first recording. First of all, the programme has been put together intelligently. It shows the various manifestations of a genre which was hugely popular during the 16th century. Moreover, with the selection of pieces the ensemble has largely avoided the best-known pieces. Agostini is especially badly represented on disc, but even a composer like Wert could do with more attention. Only a small part of his huge output in the realm of secular music is available on disc. The voices blend perfectly and they pay much attention to the text. In Luzzaschi's madrigal the two sopranos deliver fine performances of the demanding parts. There is one aspect where I would like to see some improvement. Dynamically I find these performances a bit too undifferentiated. Especially the more expressive pieces could do with some stronger dynamic shading. That is also a way to single out some key words or phrases.

In short, this is a very fine release which make me want to hear more from this ensemble.

Johan van Veen

Giaches DE WERT (1535-1596)
Ha ninfe adorn'e belle (1588) [2:42]
Sorgi e rischiara al tuo apparir il cielo (1581) [6:18]
Giovanni Giacomo GASTOLDI (1555-1609)
Cantiam lieto, cantiamo (1597) [2:24]
Luzzasco LUZZASCHI (1545-1607)
I' mi son giovinetta (1601) [3:07]
Giaches DE WERT
Vicino un chiaro e cristallino fonte (1591) [2:20]
Lodovico AGOSTINI (1534-1590)
Non t'aricordi (1574) [1:16]
Giaches DE WERT
Tirsi morir volea, Dialogo a 6 (1581) [3:48]
Del vago Muncio sull'adorne sponde (1591) [3:42]
Cipriano DE RORE (1515-1565)
Anchor che col partire (1547), intabulated by Ori Harmelin* [3:10]
Carlo GESUALDO da Venosa (1566-1612)
Sento che nel partire (1594) [3:24]
Vita della mia vita (1574) [1:33]
Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
Sfogava con le stelle (1603) [3:23]
Luca MARENZIO (1553-1599)
Potr viver io pi (1581) [3:28]
O come gran martire (1592) [3:12]
Alessandro PICCININI (1566-1638)
Passacaglia* (1639) [5:07]
T'amo mia vita (1605) [2:27]
Al'arm'all'arme (1574) [1:30]
Padre, che'l ciel, la terra e'l tutto reggi (1567) [2:32]
Giaches DE WERT
Hor si rallegri il Cielo (1588) [1:57]
In qual parte s ratto (1581) [4:01]



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