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Concert reviews

"Madrigali & Consort Songs"

La Verginella/Claire Lefilliâtre
concert: Dec 8, 2012, Utrecht, Lutheran Church

William BYRD (c1543-1623): In nomine; La Verginella; Ye sacred muses; John DOWLAND (1563-1626): Come again, sweet love doth now invite; Lasso vita mia; Pavana la mia Barbara; Alfonso FERRABOSCO (1543-1588): Alman; Fantasia in g minor; I saw my lady weeping; Luca MARENZIO (1553?-1599): Dolorous morneful cares; Zephyrus breathing; Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643): Intorno a due vermiglie e vaghe labbra; Non più guerra pietate; Quel augellin che canta ; Zefiro torna; Giovanni Maria TRABACI (c1575-1647): Canzona francese a 4; Durezze e ligature; Gagliarda I detta il Galluccio

Claire Lefilliâtre, soprano; Kaori Uemura, Sylvia Abramowicz, Christine Plubeau, viola da gamba; Françoise Enock, violone; Eugène Ferré, lute

Music-loving people in England at the end of the 16th century were fascinated by the Italian music of the time, especially the madrigals which were produced in large numbers. This resulted on the one hand in such madrigals being published with an English text; one of the most famous collections was Musica Transalpina, printed in 1588. On the other hand the Italian madrigals inspired English composers to write madrigals in the same style in the vernacular. With her own ensemble La Verginella the French soprano Claire Lefilliâtre, best known as a member of the ensemble Le Poème Harmonique, paid attention to this repertoire, which was extended by consort music.

The English versions of Italian madrigals are not very well-known and are rarely performed and recorded. They are all rooted in the stile antico and are polyphonic in texture. They demonstrated how hard it is to write a text which fits pre-existing music, especially when it was originally written for a text in another language. In the specimens which were included in the programme there were various passages which did sound rather uncomfortable, and there was sometimes a clash between the character of the music and the English text. The difference with those pieces which were originally written on an English text was clearly noticeable. An impressive example is Dowland's Lasso vita mia. This has the form of a consort song - a popular form in England - which is also used by Byrd in Ye sacred muses, a moving piece at the occasion of the death of his teacher Thomas Tallis. Such pieces were meant to be performed by a voice and a consort of viols, whereas the anglicized madrigals were meant for voices only. That doesn't exclude a performance with voice and viols, though.

The programme also included madrigals by Monteverdi which are very different from those by Marenzio. The upper voice is more virtuosic and acrobatic and requires more ornamentation, especially when the other parts are performed instrumentally. In particular those madrigals which were published after 1600 are impossible to imagine with another text than the original Italian. As these are written for voices it was interesting to hear them with voice and viols.

An interesting figure in the programme was Alfonso Ferrabosco, who was born in Bologna and served Queen Elizabeth I as a courtier from 1562 to 1578. His two collections of madrigals on Italian text were published in Venice in 1587. Several of these were also translated in English; we heard one of each, Tu dolce anima mia and I saw my lady weeping, the latter a translation of Vidi pianger madonna. Here it was again noticeable that the text and the music of the Italian madrigal were a better match than the English version of the second. Both show that Ferrabosco was an excellent composer whose madrigals are quite expressive.

The English consort music has often a kind of expression of its own. That comes to the fore in the instrumental parts of consort songs, like those by Byrd and Dowland, but also by a piece like Byrd's In nomine. Italian composers experimented with harmony as in particular the pieces by Trabaci showed, which were originally written for keyboard.

The repertoire made for a most interesting and compelling concert. The performances by Claire Lefilliâtre and the instrumentalists were outstanding. Although Ms Lefilliâtre is a soprano she has a remarkable wide tessitura; her voice is just as strong in the lower register as it is in the highest. She is a very expressive singer, who knows how to communicate the character and content of a piece. The mostly long lines in the pieces by Byrd and Dowland were exquisitely sung, with an impressive breath control and treatment of dynamics. In Monteverdi she showed her agility and flexibility, and also her dramatic talent, for instance in the encore, Si dolce è 'l tormento. It needs to be noted, though, that the text wasn't always clearly understandable. The delivery could have been better now and then. But that could also be due to the acoustic: the Lutheran church is rather small and well suited for this repertoire, but it may require an even more intimate surrounding. In that case far less people could have attended the concert; the house was packed, and the reception was enthusiastic, and rightly so. I should not forget to mention the excellent performances of the string players and the lutenist.

La Verginella was founded in 2011 and has made a flying start.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

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