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Exaudi [Photo courtesy of Exaudi]
01 Nov 2012

Exaudi, Wigmore Hall

An intriguing blend of old and new marked the tenth anniversary of the British vocal group, Exaudi, juxtaposing the adventurous intricacies and affectations of the late-sixteenth century with the virtuosic refinements of today’s avant garde.

Exaudi, Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Exaudi [Photo courtesy of Exaudi]


The concert included four new works, commissioned by the group as part of their enterprise to create a contemporary book of Italians madrigals in order, as Weeks declares in a programme note, to “discover what they idea of ‘the madrigal’ might offer the present day, either as a concrete historical phenomenon or as a set of more general principles: perhaps to do with the relationships between individual voices or the singers themselves, or to do with the idea of vocal expression, or simply to do with the humanist, secular impulses underlying the genre”.

The best of the modern were those compositions which drew direct inspiration from the past, spinning a thread to span the centuries and create a dialogue of continuing experimentation and creative expression. Michael Finnissy’s ‘Sesto Libro di Carlo Gesualdo I’ (AATTBB) exploited the sinuous false relations, suspensions and dissonances of the sixteenth-century idiom, dividing the singers into two trios and thereby explicitly intertwining elements of Gesualdo’s original with Finnissy’s own elaborations and developments. The resulting rhetorical gestures fused passionate intensity with tender melancholy, all the while retaining the sensuous undercurrents which typify the Renaissance masters.

Evan Johnson offered ‘Three in, ad abundantiam’, ‘three micro-madrigals’ for two sopranos and one alto, which the composer describes as “tentative supplements; insecure, mumbled marginalia … three denied attempts at entry”. Fragments from Petrarch’s ‘Solo e pensoso’ — articulating, with ironic paradox, the impossibility of communication — appear and dissolve, the sparse textures, frequent silences (here sadly shattered by an intruding mobile ’phone) and disrupted rhythms threatening the dissolution of form itself. The work relies on the technical skill, and courage, of the performers to establish coherence, however tentative, and here they exhibited a dazzling virtuosity.

Christian Wolff’s ‘Ashbery Madrigals’ present three enigmatic texts by poet John Ashbery — ‘Occurrence’, ‘A Penitence’ and ‘Perplexing Ways’; ‘gaps’ and disarming shifts in melody and harmony reflect the poetic ambiguity, the final madrigal diminishing from an energetic combination of eight voices to a plainsong-like unison. For the preceding ‘Sherpa Tensing stands up from the piano, says something quiet, and walks outside’ by Larry Goves, Weeks stepped aside and, as frequently in this recital, allowed the singers to establish their own intimate communication. While the combination of a complex blend of solo voices — the soprano in the stratosphere — and an occasional homophonic texture did recall the Renaissance idiom, the banal repetitions of Matthew Welton’s text seemed strangely at odds with the elevated expressive aspirations of the earliest madrigalists.

The piercing rhetoric of Morgan Hayes’ ‘E Vesuvio monte’ (2010) — with its dense, accumulating dissonances, representing Pliny the Younger’s account of the eruption of Vesuvius, contrasting with the delineated individual lines of the eight singers conveying the narrative — and Salvatore Sciarrino’s rarefied ‘Tre Madrigal’ (2008) completed the modern contributions to the programme. Sciarrino’s refined, exquisite settings of the Japanese poet, Bashō, conjured the mysterious glissandi, ululations and micro-tunings of an oriental flute, the singers creating a clear, pure tone which conveyed the poet’s passionate response to the natural world — the waves, the cicada, the red sun — culminating in the stirring ‘hum’ of the autumn wind.

Exaudi opened the concert with a mellifluous rendering of Andrea Gabrieli’s ‘Vieni, vieni Himeneo’ (‘Come, come Hymen’, à8), notable for its open, full tone and judicious use of vibrato, before exploring the bold, diverse experiments of Claudio Monteverdi and Carlo Gesualdo, beginning in the first half with three madrigals from Monteverdi’s early books.

Insouciant decorative motifs characterised ‘Sovra tenere erbette’ (‘On the soft grass’) from the Third Book of 1592, evoking the delicate charm of the pastoral setting; changes of tempi were well-managed, leading to the affecting, slow concluding line, laden with erotic resonance, “Che per desire sento morirmi anch’io” (“that I too am dying of desire”). ‘Vattene pur, crudel’ (‘Go, cruel, go!’) demonstrated the more theatrical mode of the stilo rappresentativo, the slightly dry, restrained timbre at the opening evolving to a more impassioned utterance as the independent voices became ever more florid, before diminishing to an ethereal pianissimo chromatic descent, depicting the lover “in a swoon on earth outstretch’d she lies,/ stiff were her frozen limbs,/ closed were her eyes”. Even within the quiet, delicate dynamic a rich counterpoint of vigour and elasticity conveyed the emotional energy of Tasso’s final verse.

Gesualdo’s ‘Mercè!, grido piangendo’ (‘Mercy! I cry weeping’) opened the second half of the concert, the five singers revealing a supreme confidence as they exploited the rhetorical idiosyncrasies of the idiom, declining to a startling pianissimo to whisper “Ma chi m’ascolta?” (“But who hears me?”). The low register and striking unprepared dissonances of the close revealed the profundity of the treasures of the poet’s heart which he longs to disclose before death. ‘Asciugate I begli occhi’ (‘Dry those lovely eyes’) was characterised by intelligent, delicate understatement, the homophonic texture, sensuous harmonies and slowly accumulating dissonances communicating the text’s poignant blend of grief and ecstasy.

‘Ardita zanzaretta’ (‘Presumptuous gnat’) contrasted a spirited, mocking liveliness with a more serious sobriety, twisting dissonant contortions depicting the gnat’s poison and cruel death, as well as the painful ache of the poet’s love. The singers showed their appreciation of Gesualdo’s expressive eloquence in ‘Languisce al fin’ (‘He who is parting’), coolly layering the voices and allowing the harmony to infer the bittersweet pain of the poet’s fate.

Monteverdi’s ‘Rimanti in pace’ (‘Stay here in peace’) brought the programme to a moving close, embracing both the pain of desire — as the sorrowful Phyllis “fixes her shining eyes” on her beloved Thyrsis and transfixes his heart — and the desolation of loss.

The juxtapositions of style did not always flow fluently; and, Weeks’ enthusiastic explanatory introductions were perhaps unnecessary, further impeding the progression between moods and idioms. However, the insight, sincerity and musical prowess of Exaudi was never in doubt, and the contrasting parts combined to form an impressive and touching whole.

Claire Seymour

Click here for information regarding the performers and programme.

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