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Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567 - 1643): "Madrigals Book 2"

Delitiae Musicae
Dir: Marco Longhini

rec: July 27 - 31, 2001, Verona, Chiesa di San Briccio
Naxos - 8.555308 (© 2003) (62'24")

Source: Il secondo libro de' madrigali, 1590

Paolo Costa, Alessandro Carmignani, alto; Fabio Fýrnari, Paolo Fanciulacci, tenor; Marco Scavazza, baritone; Marcello Vargetto, bass; Sabina Colonna, basso di viola; Eduardo EgŁez, lute; Carmen Leoni, harpsichord

The Second Book of Madrigals was published in 1590, when Monteverdi was just 22 years old. It was dedicated to Giacomo Ricardi, who was an influential figure in Milan. It is possible that this was Monteverdi's way of thanking Ricardi for recommending him to the Gonzaga family where Monteverdi was engaged as a player of the violin and viola da gamba at that time.

Of the 21 poems set to music in this collection 11 are by Torquato Tasso. There could be two reasons for this. Tasso was a great favourite of the Gonzagas, so choosing to set his poems to music could be another attempt to recommend himself to the court of this family in Mantua. But the choice of Tasso's poems also reflect a change in the style of composing by Monteverdi. In this book he moves towards the "form without a form", as the ensemble's director Marco Longhini calls it in the liner-notes. There is a stronger expression of the text in the music, which Tasso's poems strongly evoke. There is also a change from a horizontal to a more vertical writing: Monteverdi is starting to use harmony deliberately to express the text. He also uses combinations of voices to emphasize elements in the text and creating contrasts within the pieces.

There is a lot word painting in these madrigals, which is amply described in the booklet. Monteverdi was clearly inspired by the concrete and vivid images Tasso uses in his poems. Whether a poem is about love or nature, Monteverdi is able to translate Tasso's images in music quite beautifully. Contrasts within a poem are exploited to the full and sometimes a sudden pause is used to enhance the tension (for example before the last line of E dicea l'una sospirand'allora).

This recording is the second of the ensemble Delitiae Musicae dedicated to the madrigals of Monteverdi. It is different from others in that only male voices are used. Although Marco Longhini acknowledges that women were singing at the courts he believes that this practice was rather the exception than the rule.
Another feature of this interpretation is the use of instruments. Sometimes a viola da gamba is used, reflecting the fact that Monteverdi was famous as a viol player. Lute and harpsichord provide a basso seguente accompaniment: the lowest vocal notes are doubled with no improvisation except on the opening and closing chords.
The use of mean-tone temperament leads to strong dissonances and beautifully pure chords on consonances.

This is an exceptionally good performance, which is totally oriented towards expressing the text. Strong dynamic contrasts are applied in Se tu mi lassi, perfida (If you leave me, faithless one, yours will be the pain). The lighthearted character of S'andasse Amor a caccia (Were Love to go out hunting) can hardly be more vividly illustrated as it is done here. Ornamentation is used to strengthen the affetto of some words, like the trillo (a quick repetition of a single note) on "pianti" (tears) in Non si levav'ancor l'alba novella. Some words are stretched to emphasize them, like "dolente" (pain) in La bocca onde l'asprissime parole. Non m'Ť grave 'l morire (Dying means little to me) is a perfect illustration of the qualities of this performance: the effective use of messa di voce, the eloquent realisation of the declamatory passages, the dramatic pauses and the use of the trillo on "lagrimar" in the highly emotional closing line ("weeping tears of pity at my death") make this piece one of the highlights of this recording.

All singers are Italian and their pronunciation and articulation is natural and idiomatic, which is a prerequisite for a convincing performance of this kind of music. They produce a beautiful sound, both individually and as an ensemble.
In most madrigals the two upper voices are sung by the two male altos. Since they are not very different in timbre it was a clever decision to put them on both ends of the spectrum. The balance within the ensemble is good, although sometimes the middle voices are not clear enough and a little overshadowed by the higher and the lower voices.

The instruments are tastefully used in about half of the madrigals. The harpsichord can become quite obtrusive in music like this, but that is not the case here.
I regret the decision to use a church as the venue for this recording, though. The effect of some pauses would have been even more striking without the reverberation present here.

To sum up: a fascinating performance of highly expressive madrigals which aren't that often performed and recorded. And I sincerely hope this ensemble will get the opportunity to record the next books of madrigals as well.

Johan van Veen (© 2003)

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