10 Aug 2020

Monteverdi: The Ache of Love - Live from London

There’s a “slide of harmony” and “all the bones leave your body at that moment and you collapse to the floor, it’s so extraordinary.”

So, Robert Hollingworth, director of I Fagiolini, described one particularly startling sequence in Claudio Monteverdi’s Zefiro torna’ (The gentle west wind, from the Scherzi Musicale of 1632), which was one in the sequence of the composer’s madrigals and sacred songs that formed the second concert of Live from London - the global online vocal festival curated by VOCES8 which continues every Saturday until 3rd October.

The eight singers of I Fagiolini - forming varied a cappella ensembles, sometimes accompanied by Lynda Sayce’s chitarrone and Monteverdi’s favoured organo di legno (a wooden organ with a particularly ‘soave’ and delicate tone) as played by Hollingworth - performed works spanning from Monteverdi’s years as a ‘servant’ of the Gonzaga dukes in Mantua through to the heights of his successful Venetian career, in the VOCES8 Centre housed in the beautiful St Anne and St Agnes Church near St Paul’s in the City of London.

Though the international audience tuning in live were scattered across the globe, they were invited to imagine ‘arriving’ at the performance venue, having taken a tour through the city’s landmarks led by assistant producer Tim Vaughan, whose interview with Hollingworth also prefaced the performance. Great care has been taken by Paul and Barnaby Smith (Chief Executive Officer and Artistic Director respectively) and the VOCES8 team to ensure that not only the musical performances but the production values in the series of concerts are of the highest quality. The concerts are being filmed in 4K and Paul explained how to get the best viewing and listening experience, how to download programmes, and encouraged the online audience to get in touch during the live performance or when watching an on-demand recording subsequently.

The members of I Fagiolini took similar care to create a conversation with the audience which would enable those at home to feel that they were close to the musicians and sharing in their music-making. Hollingworth and some of the singers took turns to introduce the items in the programme, and their passion for and commitment to Monteverdi’s music was as evident in their prefatory remarks as in their wonderful music-making.

The concert began with ‘Sfogava con le stelle’ from the 1603 Fourth Book of Madrigals, in which Hollingworth took the alto line in the five-voice grouping (SATTB) which, he explained would have conventionally been sung by a high tenor. “I’m not a high tenor,” he remarked, wryly, “but what’s the point being the director if you can’t sing in your own group”. Place in a ‘socially distanced semi-circle’, singing largely off-score, the singers created a vibrant conversation. The declamatory homophony was not only precise, but free and spontaneous, frequently bursting into agile counterpoint in which the individual voices sprang through the lithe rhythms. There was a wonderful sudden expanse, “O immagini belle de l’idol mio ch’adoro” (Oh, lovely images of the idol I adore), the upper voices rising, the lower parts stepping down the scale, as if the protagonist’s emotions had broken the boundaries of his heart. The final cadence, fading delicately, conveyed gentle hope, tinged as so often in Renaissance, with bittersweet poignancy.

Also from the Fourth Book, ‘Anima mia, perdona’ (SSATB) was charged with a vivid dynamism as the chordal recitation of the text was energised by superb Italian diction, tensions created by the changing vocal groups and piquant false relations. The pulse flowed and bass Charles Gibbs was a firm and sure foundation, but when the ‘explosion’ of counterpoint came it did so with quite a surprising force and ferocity, with the inner male voices sometimes overwhelming the ensemble balance. The tendency to focus the camera on the individual members singing the most prominent phrases was the only minor irritation during what was an absolutely riveting performance.

Contrast and blend were much more consistently alternated and balanced in ‘Ohimè il bel viso’ from the Sixth Book (1614, SSATB). The darkness of the three male voices was heightened by the ladies’ high interjections, ‘Alas’, the latter building through dissonant suspensions before calm was reclaimed through euphonious homophony. The music moved effortlessly and dramatically between weight and lightness, stern blackness and gleams of fire.

Monteverdi’s accompanied madrigals - the concerti duets and trios of the later books of madrigals, balletti and scherzi - were not neglected. In ‘Vorrei baciarti’ (Seventh Book, 1619), mezzo-soprano Clare Wilkinson and Hollingworth first alternated, then overlapped the short repetitions, creating haste and urgency. An injection of hushed excitement and intimacy came with “Ah, pur mi volgo a voi, perle e rubini, tesoro di bellezza, fontana di dolcezza” (Ah, yet I turn to you, pearls and rubies, treasure of beauty, source of sweetness). Increasing ornamentation was sometimes quite florid - as with Giovan Battista Marino’s image of eyes which both weep and smile, “nasce il pianto da lor, tu m’apri il riso!” - elsewhere delicate - “onor del bel viso” (the glory of a beautiful face) - but always underpinned by the steady, soft strum of the chittarone which served to highlight the joyfulness in the ornamentation.

That bone-quivering ‘Zefiro torna’ brimmed with extremes of feeling, flying lightly as tenors Matthew Long and Nicholas Mulroy danced through the decorative curlicues and relaxed phrase structures. The tension of “come vuol mia ventura or piango”, as the disconcerting dissonances squeezed the heart and almost stopped one’s breath, was released in the fountain of jouissance of Ottavio Rinuccini’s closing phrase, “or canto” (first weep and then sing). Above the descending tetrachord ground, soprano Rebecca Lea evoked an innocence betrayed in the ‘Lamento della ninfa’ ( Madrigali Amorosi, 1638), while in the framing account of the nymph’s pain and distress, the three male shepherds made the softly pinching dissonances wince and swoon in equal measure.

One of Monteverdi’s most famous madrigals, ‘Cruda Amarilli’ from the Fifth Book (1605), was heard in less familiar form - in the sacred contrafacta version with Latin text which Aquilino Coppini provided with the composer’s blessing in 1607. Given the prevailing contemporary belief that the music serves the text, it’s rather strange to hear music composed to convey Mirtillo’s hopeless love for Amarilli, who out of propriety does not protest against her betrothal to indifferent Silvio (as told in Giambattista Guarini’s Pastor fido (The Faithful Shepherd) communicate the last words of Christ on the cross. Mirtillo’s plaint, “Poi che col dir t'offendo/ I mi morò tacendo” (Since telling I offended you,/ I shall die in silence), is rendered in Latin as “quid a me vultis adhuc? Iam moriar pro vobis” (what do you still want from me?/ Just now, I shall die for you), but the five singers of I Fagiolini gave the ascending line a whole new meaning: both personal and heavenly transfiguration come through love and death.

There were two other sacred works. The antiphonal splendours of ‘Duo seraphim’ from the 1610 Vespers were relished by Long and Mulroy, who sang the seraphims’ florid praises for God with improvisational vivaciousness and serene assurance by turns. As the suspensions and dissonances piled up, I found the organ - for all its renowned sweetness - rather too intense, a feeling that was intensified when baritone Greg Skidmore moved forward to make the duet a trio. ‘Adoramus te’ (from Bianchi, Libro Primo, 1620, SSATTB) achieved a devotional solemnity, however, effectively cohering majesty and mystery.

The concert closed with the earliest composition, ‘Rimanti in pace’ from the Third Book of Madrigals (1592, SSATB). This simple sonnet telling of the fated and unfortunate separation of Thyrsis and Phyllis seemed, in its polyphonic splendour, to contain and convey every emotion the human heart has ever felt.

Monteverdi’s music is I Fagiolini’s “comfort food”, Hollingworth had told us at the start, when introducing the programme. Beautifully sung, with unfailing emotive focus and drama, it certainly brought great comfort to this listener, nowhere more so that in the encore, sung by Matthew Long accompanied by chittarone and organ: ‘Si dolce è’l tormento’ from Quarto scherzo delle ariose vaghezze of 1624 - so sweet is the torment indeed.

The next Live from London concert will be broadcast on 15th August, when the Academy of Ancient Music will perform Glories of the Baroque .

Claire Seymour

Monteverdi: The Ache of Love

I Fagiolini: Rebecca Lea (soprano), Clare Wilkinson (mezzo-soprano), Nicholas Mulroy (tenor), Matthew Long (tenor), Greg Skidmore (baritone), Charles Gibbs (bass), Lynda Sayce (chitarrone), Robert Hollingworth (organ/director)

Live from London , broadcast from the VOCES8 Centre; Saturday 8th August, 2020.