Magnificence of Monteverdi

Preview of issue 35: Ratnagarbha on recent Monteverdi releases

Claudio Monteverdi was maestro di cappella at St Mark’s Venice for almost three decades, but amidst composing sacred music for the Basilica he still found time to write many operas (most of them sadly lost to posterity) as well as no less than nine books of madrigals. Recordings from this prolific output are released regularly these days and there is an enormous range of technique and approach to choose from, much of it of extremely high quality. We are truly in a golden age for lovers of Renaissance music. 

My top recommendation this month is  Anamorfosi – Allegri & Monteverdi fromLe Poème Harmonique directed by Vincent Dumestre (Alpha – cat. ALPHA438). Le Poème Harmonique are based in France and have established a reputation for early music recordings of great passion and finesse. For this recording they have paired two very well known names from that period as well as several lesser known or anonymous composers. The connecting thread is that of anamorphosis, suggesting shifting meanings and perspectives. This becomes immediately evident with the opening tracks of the Miserere. For this is not Gregorio Allegri in his original guise. After his austere setting of Psalm 50 had been transcribed by Mozart it was subject to layer upon layer of rewriting and embellishment, with much use of expressive dissonances. This disc gives us a tour through these musical strata. The quality of the performance is simply stunning – deeply passionate, but also of great purity, and the extremes of expressive ornamentation are displayed to their full, astonishing advantage. The songs from Monteverdi, and others, are similarly powerful, with the addition of a deeply sonorous and vibrant instrumental accompaniment. The sleeve notes, sadly not available with streaming, are useful here to understand the shifting meanings and transfers from sacred to secular contexts encoded in these songs. This is a studio recording, and the sound is close miked and clean, the plangent cross-relations and ornamentations come across with immediacy and finely-etched clarity. Highly recommended. 

Montiverdi’s unsurpassed collections of Madrigals are about as far from the ‘fa’la’la spring it is a springing’ songs of school choir days as can be imagined. They require a high degree of artistry to give body and life to their very subtle harmonies and constant changes of emotional tone and voice. Frequently the subject matter concerns suffering – love rejected, love lost, figured with startlingly bold chromatic shifts and dissonances. The budget label Naxos have undertaken the bold project of recording all nine books of Monteverdi’s madrigals with the Italian ensemble Delitae Musicae, and last year finally reached the ninth book: Monteverdi Madgrigals Book Nine, Scherzi Musical, Delitae Musicae and Marco Longhini (Naxos 2019)

The disc opens with a richly sonorous and meditative instrumental symphonia by Biagio Marini to set the atmosphere. We then move into the Book Nine songs. The ensemble consists of six male voices, with the counter tenor voice of Alessandro Carmignani especially and most pleasingly prominent. He engages in vivacious dialogue with other voices, and Loghini’s direction is effective in bringing out the dramatic counterpoints of Monteverdi’s score – we are reminded that he was a pioneering master of the operatic arts.  The singing is perhaps more expressive than technically perfect, but the instrumental playing is faultless. Two violins appear from time to time and the continuo, divided among harpsichord, organ, theorbo, and Baroque guitar, adds variety. Longhini’s direction focuses on rhythmic vivacity and clarity of polyphonic imitation, making for an enjoyable, somewhat playful set.

If you are not a great fan of the counter tenor sound, then another disc I can recommend is Monteverdi: Lettera Amorosa (Outhere 2018). Here Mariana Flores’ rich soprano brings a tender sweetness and purity to a selection of madrigals and a couple of operatic arias. Although all of these are solo pieces one never tires of her richly expressive voice. It has again that quality of austerity combined with passion that seems so appropriate for the venetian master. Here again the subdued instrumental accompaniment provides a poignant, rich and darkly expressive backdrop to the arching vocals. 

Well, I’m not really the person to recommend operas, so that leaves the Vespers, ah yes the Vespers, its many versions, many printed manuscripts, not to mention the innumerable approaches to performance. This is sacred christian music at its most daring and passionate, as far as one can get from austere plainchant, or protestant piety. The various Vespers are well worth a continued and deepening acquaintance, but can I recommend anything that betters the magnificent performance from 1986 by John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists of the Vespro Della Beata Virgini (Deutsche Grammophon) (also known as the Vespers of 1610 to distiguish this version from those of 1640 and 1651)?   Well, perhaps. The most recent recording by La Tempête and Simon-Pierre Bestion (Alpha Classics ALPHA 552) is highly idiosyncratic, and seems to go out of its way to break the mould and be, well, very French, with plenty of vibrato and scoring reminiscent of Berlioz perhaps. Not for the faint hearted… Try instead that by Concerto Palatino (Atma Classique 2003) with the ensemble Tragicomedia, also the 2011 version by Concerto Palatino and Ensemble Concerto (Dynamic 2011). These are both very spirited, very Italian performances, with considerable verve and dynamism, that seem to go right to the soul of Monteverdi’s audacious reworking of ancient liturgy. 

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