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Reviews

Les Arts Florissants at the Wigmore Hall
17 Jan 2017

Monteverdi, Masters and Poets - Imitation and Emulation

‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’

Les Arts Florissants at the Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Paul Agnew

Photo credit: Denis Rouvre

 

Vincenzo Giustiniani’s account (in his Discorso sopra la musica, c.1630) of the technical accomplishments and elegant stylisation of the concerto delle donne who performed at the Ferrarese court of during the late sixteenth-century, might equally describe the vocal refinement and rich expressiveness demonstrated by the soloists of Les Arts Florissants during this concert of music inspired by the poetry of Torquato Tasso and Giovanni Battista Guarini.

Between 2011 and 2015, Paul Agnew and Les Arts Florissants undertook the enormous challenge of performing and recording the eight Books of Claudio Monteverdi’s madrigals. Here, with Monteverdi’s Mantuan years as the focus, the six singers performed madrigals drawn from the composer’s first five Books, juxtaposed with settings of the same texts by those whose example and influence shaped Monteverdi’s response to the vivid images, ruminative conceits and passionate exultations of the poetry.

Ferrara and Mantua were startling vibrant cultural centres under the courtly patronage of Alfonso II d’Este and Vincenzo Gonzaga respectively. Vincenzo, who succeeded his father Guglielmo in September 1587, seems to have relished the lively social and artistic milieu cultivated by Alfonso and his wife, Margherita Gonzaga, which contrasted with the more austere court at Mantua. It was at Ferrara that he gained a grounding in the literary and musical arts, and formed friendships with Tasso and Guarini. There was an animated interplay of musical forces between Ferrara and Mantua - one might describe it as a sort of ‘cultural espionage’ as the courtly performers vied with each other with regard to technique and timbre - and the 1580s witnessed a flourishing of artistic experimentation at Mantua which resulted in startling, novel forms and styles of singing and theatre.

The soloists of Les Arts Florissants, led by tenor and director Paul Agnew, demonstrated full and effortless command of the new vocal techniques that were described by Caccini in the Introduction to Le nuove musiche of 1602, and which embody the philosophical ambitions of what was termed the seconda prattica: that is, the ornamented declamatory style in which the music was governed by the sentiments of the text. This justified the freer treatment of dissonance, but equally, composers sought texts that expressed extremes of emotion, and attentively squeezed every drop of feeling from the individual words.

The performers’ technical ease, expressive finesse and dramatic directness were equally striking. Every phrase had individuality, animation and shapeliness; cadences were thoughtfully effected, with dynamic shading and judicious ornament. The vocal blend was beguiling, but from tranquil or comforting timbral consonances, individual voices pushed assertively forward: by turns angry, despairing, pleading, accusatory. Theatricality predominated: the singers were very much off score, facing the audience, turning towards each other; bowing, swaying, smiling, frowning. In assertive episodes the words quite literally seemed to leap and dance, but the diction was no less clear in the more subdued passages. Chromatic twists and contortions were savoured and wherever the modulations strayed, the intonation remained true. Dissonances and suspensions were allowed to linger, where it was shrewd to do so. Time and again, Miriam Allan’s soprano rose with radiant purity above the other voices; she was joined by Hannah Morrison - who sang with directness and animation - and Lucille Richardot to form a gleaming efflorescence of colour - recalling the famed ‘Three Ladies of Ferrara’, Laura Peverara, Anna Guarini and Livia d’Arco, who starred at the Ferrarese could during these years. Tenor Sean Clayton formed a supple, soft-grained complement to Agnew’s declamatory energy and forthrightness. At the bottom Cyril Costanzo was warm-toned and as steady as a rock, an anchor for the roving, contending explorations and elaborations above.

The ensemble began with three settings of paired texts in which Tasso’s ‘Ardi e gela à tua voglia’ (You can burn or freeze as you wish) formed a riposte to Guarini’s ‘Ardo sì ma no t’amo’ (Yes, I burn but I don’t love you). Such intertextual references became increasingly common in cinquecento secular polyphony and these two texts were the first such pair in what was to become a prominent tradition.

Orazio Vecchi’s Guarini setting (à 6) was characterised by restlessness though there was self-composure in the penultimate line, ‘Perch’ho già sano il core’ (for already I have healed my heart). Tasso’s riposte grew into furious outbursts when the protagonist scorned the lover’s suffering - full textures being reserved for key lines of text. The personas in the poem seemed to be represented by contrasting high and low voices, creating drama and rhetoric, especially with repetitions of ‘E se l’amor fu vano’ (and if love was in vain). Marc’Antonio Ingegneri is known to have taught Monteverdi, when he was maestro di cappella of the cathedral in Cremona during the 1580s. His five-voice setting unfolded Guarini’s accusations more gently, while Tasso’s contemptuous rejection was communicated by energetic counterpoint and an assertive high tenor line. Monteverdi himself exchanges a contralto for a tenor, in a vibrant setting (from the First Book) in which the high soprano line shone brightly, and which seemed to teem with real human emotion. Also from the First Book, ‘Baci soavi e cari’ (Sweet, precious kisses (SSATB)) swelled with bittersweet suspensions; the female trio slowed with exquisite delicacy for the declaration, ‘O dolcissime rose/ In voi tutto ripose’ (Everything rests in you, softest of roses).

In ‘Dolcemente dormiva la mia Clori’ (My Cloris was sleeping sweetly (SSTTB), from the Second Book of 1590), Costanzo’s sure bass was a firm foundation for the twisting progressions which follow the serene opening portrait of the sleeping nymph. The expansive ‘Non si levav’ancor l’alba novella’ (The new day had not yet dawned (SSATB)) emerged hesitantly from a beautiful pianissimo as the upper voices held long notes above the lower voices moving lines - a gesture which Monteverdi borrowed from Luca Marenzio’s setting of the same text. Surprisingly this did not precede Monteverdi’s madrigal, Agnew preferring Marenzio’s ‘Non vidi mai dopo notturna pioggia’ with its meandering depiction of the ‘wandering stars’ which evade the poet-speaker’s vision and its plummeting image of weariness, as the spirit finds rest from pain. Both ‘Non si levav’ancor’ and ‘Se tu mi lassi, perfida, tuo danno’ (If you leave me, faithless one, it’s your loss!) were enlivened by vivacious points of imitations and canzonetta-like rhythms.

Before the interval, the music of Giaches de Wert was introduced. In 1565 the Gonzaga family appointed Wert maestro di cappella at the recently completed ducal chapel of Santa Barbara and he remained in this role until 1592. Monteverdi thus spent his earliest years at Mantua during Wert's final ones. During the 1570s increasing involvement with the Este court at Ferrara brought Wert into close contact with Tasso and Guarini, as is evidenced his seventh book of madrigals (1577) whose settings of the poets’ epic verse are dramatic and full of theatrical contrasts. ‘Vezzosi augelli’ (Joyous birds) comes from the eighth book (1586): the fleetly running upper parts - a hallmark of madrigals written for the concerto delle donne and imitated by composers such as Benedetto Pallavicino and Monteverdi himself - demanded great precision and virtuosity from the three female singers, while Costanzo, too, skilfully met the florid challenges of the close. Wert’s detailed response to the text is echoed in Monteverdi’s ‘Ecco mormorar l’onde’ (Hear the murmuring waves), in which Tasso’s tight images trigger picturesque musical gestures. The two birds which ‘gently sing’ were beautifully represented by the falling soprano voices, their unison descent blossoming into a joyful exclamation at the sight of dawn. ‘O primavera, gioventù de l’anno’ (O springtime, youth of the year (SSATB)) from Book Three featured an extraordinary sequence of suspensions at the close which was supported with gentle but focused understatement by Costanzo.

After the interval, the drama of Wert’s ‘Forsennata gridava’ - forcefully directed by Agnew, especially at the close - was complemented by the rhetorical explosiveness of Monteverdi’s ‘Vattene, pur crudel’ (Go, wicked man, (Book Three)) in which the individual voices emerged from the texture with striking insistence, building towards the collective assertiveness of the final stanza, and the final, weighty oratorical gesture, ‘Invendicata ancor piango,/ e m’assido’ (do I, still unavenged, weep and implore?). ‘Ch’io non t’ami’ (à 6) was a highlight of the evening, with the singers creating an exciting sense of innovation and newness - a hint of the radicalism to come. Such radicalism was represented by ‘Ah, dolente partita!’ which, though published in the Fourth Book which followed ten years after the Third, had first appeared in an anthology in 1597 just two years after Wert’s setting. While the debt of the younger composer to the elder is evident - in general and particular terms (Monteverdi’s pairing of the sopranos pays homage to Wert’s setting) - Monteverdi’s risk-taking now takes flight: Wert’s thirds are replaced by biting dissonances, and the descent, ‘La pena de la morte’ (the pain of death) in Wert’s setting is taken up and repeated compulsively to convey excessive suffering.

We closed, as we began, with three settings of the same text: Guarini’s ‘Cruda Amarilli’ (Cruel Amaryllis). The strange intervallic dissonances and varying meters of Benedetto Pallavicino (1600), were followed by Wert’s powerfully surging lines - the rolling r’s were articulated with startling incisiveness and bite. The vivid freedom of Monteverdi’s response to Guarini’s Il pastor fido brought the programme to a close. It was this madrigal, which opened the Fifth Book of 1605 which provoked criticism from the polemist Artusi, who attacked Monteverdi’s use of dissonance. In fact, Monteverdi’s dissonances seem tamer than Artusi’s accusations of harmonic ‘wrong-doing’ suggest: what was made apparent here, though, was the expressive humanity of Monteverdi’s setting. Orfeo was just two years ahead, and the soloists of Les Arts Florissants showed us that the notion of opera as a ‘drama in music’, a depiction of human psychology is writ large in this musical embodiment of Mirtillo’s complaint: ‘Poi che col dir t’offendo,/ I’ mi morrò tacendo’ (Since I offend you with my words, I shall die in silence).

Claire Seymour

Monteverdi: Masters and Poets - Imitation and Emulation:

Soloists of Les Arts Florissants: Paul Agnew - director, tenor, Miriam Allan & Hannah Morrison - soprano, Lucile Richardot - contralto, Sean Clayton - tenor, Cyril Costanzo - bass

Vecchi - ‘Ardo sì, ma non t’amo’; Ingegneri - ‘Ardo sì, ma non t’amo’; Monteverdi - ‘Ardo sì, ma non t’amo’, ‘Baci soavi e cari’, ‘Dolcemente dormiva la mia Clori’; Marenzio - ‘Non vidi mai dopo notturna pioggia’; Monteverdi - ‘Non si levav'ancor l'alba novella’, ‘Se tu mi lasci, perfida, tuo danno’; Wert - ‘Vezzosi augelli’; Monteverdi - ‘Ecco mormorar l'onde’, ‘O primavera, gioventú dell'anno’; Wert - ‘Forsennata gridava’; Monteverdi - ‘Vattene pur, crudel, con quella pace’, ‘Ch’io t'ami e t'ami più de la mia vita’; Wert - ‘Ah dolente partita’; Monteverdi - ‘Ah dolente partita’, ‘Piagne e sospira, e quando i caldi raggi’; Pallavicino - ‘Cruda Amarilli’; Wert - ‘Cruda Amarilli’; Monteverdi - ‘Cruda Amarilli’.

Wigmore Hall, London; 16th January 2017.

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