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"Monteverdi's Lamenti"
Profeti della Quinta
concert: Feb 23, 2019, Utrecht, Geertekerk

Carlo GESUALDO da Venosa (1566-1613): Occhi, del mio cor vita; Giovanni Girolamo KAPSBERGER (1580-1651): Passacagliaa; Toccataa; Scipione LACORCIA (1585?-1620): Ahi, tu piangi; Lazzasco LUZZASCHI (1545-1607): Deh, non cantar Io veggio pur pietate; Morir non puo'l mio core; Quivi sospiri; Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1634): Lamento d'Arianna (SV 107); Lamento della ninfa (SV 163); Zefiro torna (SV 108); Cipriano DE RORE (c1515-1565): Ancor che col partire; Datemi pace

Doron Schleifer, Roman Melish, alto; Lior Leibovici, Loïc Paulin, tenor; Elam Rotem, bass; Ori Harmelin, archlute (soloa)

The madrigal was the main form of secular vocal music in 16th-century Italy. Many of such pieces were written by some of the most famous composers of the time. These were all written in the stile antico, in which all the parts are treated on equal footing. Much changed around 1600, when a new style emerged, which put the text into the centre. However, the changes in regard to text expression were not as drastic as the main promoter of the stile nuovo, Giulio Caccini, suggested. In many of the madrigals written in the second half of the 16th century the new style already manifested itself, especially in the use of madrigalisms. It is true that after 1600 the individual voice was given a more important role, but composers continued to write polyphonic madrigals, even one of the main exponents of the new style, Claudio Monteverdi. The ensemble Profeti della Quinta provided an interesting survey of the developments in the writing of madrigals in the decades around 1600 during a series of concerts in the Netherlands. I attended the concert in the Geertekerk in Utrecht.

This church, with its relatively intimate acoustic, is a pretty ideal venue for what is basically chamber music. It allows for an optimal intelligibility of the text, which is essential in music, which is largely based on a precise expression of the text. The programme showed how the various composers dealt with this issue.

The earliest composer was Cipriano de Rore, who was probably the first composer who aimed at a close connection between text and music. His most famous madrigal, Ancor che col partire, could not be omitted, but although its fame is fully justified, in Datemi pace he goes considerably further in the expression of the text with musical means. Among its features is a free treatment of metre and rhythm, one of the ways to communicate the text. It was appropriately followed by a toccata from the pen of Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger, one of the main composers of pieces for plucked instruments of his time. Here we find the same liberties as in Rore's madrigal, and that came perfectly off in Ori Harmelin's performance.

Luzzasco Luzzaschi, who was one of Rore's pupils, belongs to the next generation. At the end of his life he experienced the emergence of the new style, and in 1601 he published a collection of madrigals for one to three sopranos and basso continuo. However, most of his madrigals are in the stile antico, although in his later madrigals the various parts are of a more declamatory nature. That came to the fore in the madrigals performed by Profeti della Quinta, such as Quivi sospiri. The very choice of text, from Dante's Inferno, is an indication of the composer's ideal of an evocative musical expression of human emotions.

It was fitting that this madrigal was followed by one from the pen of Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa, from his fifth book of madrigals. Although this was published in 1611, when the new style had already emerged, Gesualdo never embraced the monody or the use of a basso continuo. His madrigals are for five voices, which are treated equally. However, few composers achieved such an amount of musical expression as Gesualdo in his madrigals. His main tool is harmony: his harmonic experiments are not entirely of his own invention - a comparable use of harmony for expressive reasons can be found in composers such as the two above-mentioned as well as Luca Marenzio - but few went that far. Occhi, del mio cor vita is an eloquent specimen of his style.

Composers of a later generation from Naples - where Gesualdo was born and to which his family had close ties - followed in his footsteps, but went ever further. Harry van der Kamp, director of the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam, once characterised this repertoire as "volcanic music". Scipione Lacorcia is one of them; his madrigal Ahi, tu piangi is quite long; one of its features is a very detailed treatment of the text. However, what is most notable is his use of harmony. This piece could easily have been written in our time, as it seems to lack any tonal coherence. One won't find such harsh dissonances in Gesualdo's music, let alone other composers of his or previous generations. A piece like this raises the question whether this really serves the expression of the text. One gets the impression that the dissonances are almost an aim in itself, dissonances for dissonances' sake. I personally found the previous madrigals far more expressive, delivering a much more incisive communication of the text and its affetti. Even Gesualdo is on the borderline.

That was especially noticeable in this concert, where Lacorcia's madrigal was followed by one of Monteverdi's most beautiful secular pieces, the Lamento della ninfa, which is a sophisticated mixture of elements of the old and the new style. The contrast between the upper voice, singing in monodic style, and the three lower voices, is one of the intriguing features of this piece. After a passacaglia by Kapsberger we turned to a probably even more famous piece, the Lamento d'Arianna. However, it is mostly the solo version which is performed; here we heard Monteverdi's own arrangement for five voices, which he included in his sixth madrigal book of 1614. The fact that the intensity of the text loses nothing of its impact in this version attests to Monteverdi's skills. This, and the closing Zefiro torna, require perfect ensemble, and that was one of the features of the Profeti della Quinta's singing for most of the concert.

One of the remarkable things about this ensemble is that it comprises five male voices, from alto to bass. Doron Schleifer, who sings the upper voice, is announced as an alto, but has the range of a soprano. Sometimes his voice was a little too dominant, but overall I was impressed by the ensemble's performances, with regard to text expression and intelligibility of the text. I noted with satisfaction the use of the messa di voce, one of the main tools of singers at the time, but often ignored in performances of this kind of repertoire.

That does not mean that everything was perfect. I was a little disappointed by the performance of Monteverdi's Lamento della ninfa. I wonder whether there is any historical evidence that madrigals were performed with only male voices anyhow, but in the case of this piece, in which the soprano represents a female character, that seems even more questionable. My doubt was confirmed by the performance. It seemed to me that the range of this part makes it hard for a male singer to sing it in such a way that the text can be understood by the audience. I did not hear much of it, largely due to too much pressure on the voice, which also inhibited the diction and as a result the intelligibility of the text.

This issue does not any way diminish my admiration for the way the ensemble presented this compelling programme of highlights from a large repertoire of madrigals. It was most interesting to hear how this genre developed from the late 16th to the early 17th century. The long and enthusiastic applause of the large audience was well deserved, and resulted in an encore, a kaddish from the collection of sacred chants in Hebrew Hashirim asher lish’lomo by the Italian-Jewish composer Salomone Rossi, beautifully sung by this fine ensemble.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

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