Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
Concerto. Settimo Libro de’ Madrigali
Concerto Italiano/Rinaldo Alessandrini
rec. October 2020, Sala della Carità, Padua, Italy
Naïve Records OP7365 [2 CDs: 131]
Monteverdi wrote eight books of madrigals in all, probably spanning nearly fifty years. As would be expected when set against the 76 years of his life, they vary significantly in design, sources and style. The penultimate, Seventh, collection was published in Venice in 1619, six years after the composer arrived there as maestro di cappella at St Mark’s and five years after the appearance of the Sixth book, actually written before his move.
This Settimo Libro represented a major advance in purpose and style. In contrast with the musical resources Monteverdi had been given in Mantua, in Venice he was given a very much freer hand – virtually carte blanche – to write as he pleased and avail himself of richer, probably more experienced, musical forces. These were surely musicians used to greater innovation than those of the provincial Gonzaga court.
Monteverdi chose to eschew the approach he had taken hitherto in his collections of madrigals. Books One to Six were essentially anthologies emphasising individual lament, introspection and the trials of love. They privileged a closeness between text and music such that the latter was as poetic and full of emotion as the former; less was left to chance. In fact, Monteverdi’s Sixth book was the last to present somewhat restrained – though never bland – monodic music for intimate surroundings, ‘chamber’ music almost; in some ways, it leaves the listeners to supply for themselves any theatricality from the text. In the Seventh book, however, Monteverdi was more interested in building drama and mood in their own right, and on more organic terms. In fact, he entitled the Settimo Libro ‘Concerto’.
Listen to ‘Eccomi pronta ai baci’ [CD1 tr7], for instance. Kisses, maybe, but they are ‘delivered’ almost as sprites: there is impetus, fervour and fire. Then Tirsi e Clori [CD2 tr16] is over twelve minutes long – the longest work in this collection. For all that it has a pastoral setting, this dramatic dialogue between Thyrsis and Chloris is a colourful evocation of fulfilment even though the lovers base their happiness on an imagined idyll borne of dance in bucolic splendour.
It is fitting, therefore, that this excellent release from Rinaldo Alessandrini and the Concerto Italiano presents the thirty or so pieces grouped by the authors of the texts. Yet there is no lack of variety; contrast is derived from the differing approaches and styles of these writers, just as there is illumination of Monteverdi’s underlying intentions by the very virtue of such grouping.
Arrangement is neither chronological nor overtly thematic: Alessandrini – who had so far recorded the first six books of madrigals by Monteverdi, some with OPUS 111, which is now part of the Naïve stable – evidently revels in the sumptuous yet focused strengths of each author.
Perhaps chief amongst these is the influential contemporary of Monteverdi whose work was as successful as was Petrarch’s two and a half centuries earlier: Giambattista Marino. It was to Marino’s sensuous, even contrived and highly figurative, poetry that Monteverdi had turned first in his preceding book. Half a dozen such settings by Marino open this collection [CD1 tr1,3-7] and set the tone for the vigour, immediacy and passion of the challenging music which fills these two CDs -challenging because Alessandrini and his relatively modest forces – a dozen performers of Concerto Italiano – invite us to respond to the music, rather than merely hear it presented, catalogue-style. There is rhetoric and declamation – never either stilted or forced – in both instrumental and vocal presence.
Dynamics vary appropriately. In such numbers as Al lume delle stelle [CD1. tr10], for example, the singers seem to be referring to one another as much as to us through their use of deliberately pointed tempi. Thyrsis (in a fully developed scena drammatica akin tolater pieces by Monteverdi such as Tancredi e Clorinda in Book Eight) asks questions hoping for some relief and understanding of the pain of his love. Although we can’t (necessarily) supply answers to him, we can empathise and at least try to understand.
The players of the Concerto Italiano bring their usual rich, deep, pointed sound to this music. Listen to the studied Entrata [CD2 tr1] which opens the second CD by the near contemporary of Monteverdi, Biagio Marini (1594 – 1663), who was also a violin virtuoso. It’s hard to miss the ensemble’s singers’ sense of purpose and detached, yet very real and immediate, engagement with the spirit and idiom of these intense and expressive madrigals. Not a note is held too long, not a vowel is exaggerated, nor a syllable unclear.
There is no room for indulgent mannerism in the performance of a genre which has to be almost somewhat alien to twenty-first-century ears and minds. Both poets and composer use rhetoric and artful declamation. In the aforementioned Thyrsis, for instance, there is a heroism in the voice of Raffaele Giordani (page 5 of the booklet identifies participants with musical numbers); this is entirely appropriate and tugs at the heart.
The performances throughout serve to communicate such sentiments as the way in and extent to which the ‘rose of an amorous cheek is fairer than a dewy one’ (è rosa rugiadosa ch’a l’alba si diletta mossa da fresca auretta; ma più vaga è la rosa de la guancia amorosa) in Vaga su spina ascosa [CD2 tr10]. Yet these performers always convey such sentiments with respect for the genuineness of the lover’s feelings. That is, the performance assumes a common language between poet-composer and listener.
There is a similar honesty and integrity in the solo tenor’s (Giordani again) plaintive Se pur destina e vòle [CD2 tr14]; this is an extended attempt to balance acceptance with reluctance, rejection in love; and to set both what happens and what the lover longs for against the power of circumstance. So many times, we have heard such anguish and pleading… ‘If I lose (your) light, how much longer remains for me’ (Ove n’andrò sì lunge ch’io perda il dolce lume?) but Alessandrini and the Concerto Italiano consistently achieve authentic freshness and musical originality. They make an immense and lasting impression on the listener, not because it’s likely that we too have at one time or another felt such longing, but because the (anonymous) poet and the supreme Monteverdi have fused the dimensions of such emotions into something beyond the literal, with its contrasts between light and darkness, sea and land, calm and wind. Everyone understands and sympathises.
Most importantly, Alessandrini and the Concerto Italiano have consciously, expertly, sensitively extended to us an invitation: they suggest that we surrender to the idiom and the beauty which Monteverdi shows to be intrinsic to the madrigal form. It’s as though these musicians share with Monteverdi a certainty that there is always something else to be discovered in any given madrigal, but that they are never going to withhold it, merely wonder, professionally, with us listeners. As said, Monteverdi was pushing limits by the time of this Seventh Book.
The acoustic of the Sala della Carità, Padua, is neither too spacious nor boxy. It suits this repertoire admirably. For some, there may, perhaps, be a slight lack of resonance; this seems less pronounced in the first CD than the second, although only one range of dates (October 2020) for recording is given in the booklet. But every note, every musical phrase, spoken and played, is forward and lucid.
The booklet has an introductory essay by Alessandrini which concentrates on the context of the direction Monteverdi took in this Seventh book, brief background on Alessandrini as a conductor and harpsichordist, and complete texts in English and French as well as the Italian. The reduced size of the fonts used, and their relative lack of contrast with the off-white background of the booklet must be the only small negative in a superb collection which leaves the listener wanting more; let’s hope these accomplished and sensitive musicians have already planned the Eighth book.
The two hours plus of music here are deeply satisfying and inspiring from beginning to end; this release should without hesitation be added to the collection of lovers of this repertoire.
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Sinfonia – ‘Tempro la cetra, e per cantar gli honori’
[Balletto] – Sinfonia
‘A quest’olmo, a quest’ombre ed a quest’onde’
‘Perché fuggi tra salci’
‘Vorrei baciarti, o Filli’
‘Tornate, o cari baci’
‘Eccomi pronta ai baci’
‘Se i languidi miei sguardi’
‘Ecco vicine, o bella tigre, l’hore’
‘Al lume delle stelle’
‘Non è di gentil core’
‘Non vedrò mai le stelle’
‘Oh viva fiamma, oh miei sospiri ardenti’
‘Augellin, che la voce al canto spieghi’
‘Amor, che deggio far’
‘Con che soavità, labbra odorate’
‘Dice la mia bellissima Licori’
‘Parlo, miser, o taccio?’
‘Se’l vostro cor, Madonna’
‘Oh, come sei gentile’
‘Interrotte speranze, eterna fede’
‘Ohimé, dov’è il mio ben? dov’è il mio core?’
‘Vaga su spina ascosa’
‘Io son pur vezzosetta pastorella’
‘Ah, che non si conviene’
‘Tu dormi? Ah, crudo core’
‘Se pur destina e vòle’
‘Chiome d’oro, bel tesoro’
‘Tirsi e Clori’
Biagio Marini (1594 – 1663)
Entrata grave (balletto secondo à 3 & à 4)