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Performances

23 Feb 2019

Expressive Monteverdi from Les Talens Lyriques at Wigmore Hall

This was an engaging concert of madrigals and dramatic pieces from (largely) Claudio Monteverdi’s Venetian years, a time during which his quest to find the ‘natural way of imitation’ - musical embodiment of textual form, meaning and affect - took the form not primarily of solo declamation but of varied vocal ensembles of two or more voices with rich instrumental accompaniments.

Les Talens Lyriques at Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Magnus Staveland

Photo credit: Anne Valeur

 

It gave us a welcome opportunity to hear the zest and zip of Christophe Rousset’s Les Talens Lyriques - Rousset, stood with his back to us, his hands hovering with vivid alertness above the keyboards of the organ and harpsicord, a bundle of bristling energy - and to appreciate the expressive talents of three singers who, though familiar and esteemed presences in the concert halls and opera houses of Europe, are less frequent visitors to these shores.

‘Chiome d’oro’ from the Sixth Book of Madrigals (1619) got things underway, the entwining tenor voices of Swedish haute contre Anders J Dahlin and Norwegian Magnus Staveland spinning ‘tresses of gold’: there was joy and lightness of spirit, and a combination of precision and elasticity in their silkily unfolding phrases and melismas; and, the fluctuation of tempi gave the impression of being both flexible and controlled, as the music conveyed the sweep of varied emotions. The mood was never too earnest and retained its playful bite. Both singers studied in Copenhagen, Dahlin at the Royal Conservatory of Music and Staveland at the Royal Opera Academy. They joined forces again in ‘O sia tranquillo il mare’ (Whether the sea be calm) from the Eighth Book, Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi, and here they exploited every wonderful dissonance, ‘Mai da quest onde io non rivolgo il piede’ (I shall never again turn my steps back to this ocean), throbbing with the pain of betrayal. As the strength of their lamentation for the faithlessness of the poet-speaker’s beloved was expressed in a musical shudder, both body and soul grieved. A poignant tierce de Picardie, ‘E spesso ancor t’invio, per messagieri’ (often I send messages to you), seemed to suggest a hope which then proved false, as the tenors swelled through their pain: ‘A ridir la mia pena, e’l mio tormento’ (to tell you repeatedly of my pain and my torment). Coming together in the closing, summative lines, they articulated the moral - he who entrusts his heart to a lady and his prayers to the wind, can hope for no mercy - in dark, low voices. This was a performance that was at once visceral, spontaneous and expressively calculated to make its effect felt.

Between these tenor duets, soprano Eugénie Warnier performed ‘Quel sguardo sdegnosetto’ (That disdainful little face) from the second book of Scherzi musicale (1632). I enjoyed the strong sense of engagement between the voice and Isabelle Saint-Yves’ cello line, and the flashes of joy which propelled the music towards its triple meter, though I found Warnier’s tone a little ‘white’: pure and clean, yes, but full and diverse enough to capture every drop of nuance that Monteverdi squeezes from the text? - I wasn’t so sure. And, the very purity of the sound, here and elsewhere in this performance, made the tuning of some cadential phrases difficult to secure, as the floating soprano hovered rather than skewered the pitched, while the string and continuo issued a grainier hue. Warnier’s sensitive performance of ‘Ohimè ch’io cado, ohimè’ (Alas, I am falling, alas) - the ending was exquisitely still and poised - was preceded by Giovanni Kapsberger’s Sinfonia prima à 4 con due bassi (1615). Here, we enjoyed the balletic violin fingering of Gilone Gaubert and Virginie Descharmes which flirted with Angélique Mauillon’s harp and the ripples of Laura Mónoca Pustilnik’s lute, a silky ribbon against the gravellier organ and cello timbre. Was Kapsberger’s Sinfonia offered as an instrumental complement to Monteverdi’s experiments with vivid declamatory expression? Or as a palette cleanser? Or simply to give the singers a rest? The Sinfonia was not mentioned in Alexandra Coghlan’s programme note, and no other items by Kapsberger, or for instruments alone, were performed.

Scalding dissonances returned in the tenors’ duet, ‘Ardo e scoprir, ahi lasso, io non ardisco’ (I burn and, alas, I do not dare to reveal); there was delicious bittersweet-ness which epitomised the contemporary aesthetic - ‘Per trovar al mio mal pace e diletto’ (to find, in my woe, peace and delight’ - and wonderful gradations of intensity as the rhetorical fragments formed a cogent whole. The first half concluded with the ‘Lamento d’Arianna’ from Arianna. Oh, that more of this contribution to the commemoration of the marriage of Francesco Gonzaga and Marguerita of Savoy was extant! One wonders what the newly-weds made of this ‘celebratory’ expression of such pain and torment … a suffering which, perhaps, expresses a sorrow bound up with Monteverdi’s own dissatisfaction, grief and restlessness in 1608. As early as 1601 he had written to the Mantuan Duke expressing his concern that court intrigues might deprive him of his place, and recording his affliction by illness, poverty and overwork, and a talent overlooked. In September 1607 his wife died; two weeks later Monteverdi was summoned to Mantua to write Arianna for a wedding which would take place by proxy in Turin in February 1608 and be celebrated in Mantua with two weeks of festivities in May 1608. The title role was to have been taken by Catérina Martinelli, pupil of Monteverdi’s wife who had lived with him from 1603, but in March 1608 she died of smallpox and the role was sung by Virginia Ramponi: she was reputed to have learned the part in six days and her emotive performance to have moved many to tears. No wonder that Monteverdi later remarked that Arianna had almost caused his own demise.

Warnier moved with freedom and naturalness through the lyrical arioso - the vocal line is less rhythmically complex that the idiom of Orfeo - and fused music and language to express deep and diverse human emotions. Her soprano was quite withheld at the start, allowing the harp and lute to articulate the sentiments of the text, and the escalation of intensity and rhetoric was admirably controlled, as was the responsiveness of the instrumental lines to the voice. I wondered, though, whether it was wise to position Warnier in the centre of the Wigmore Hall platform behind the instrumentalists: could those seated directly behind Rousset see her at all? So much depends not just on the vocal expression but on the ‘lived’ embodiment of emotion: one thinks of the Three Ladies of Ferrara, famed as much for the luxuriant effusiveness of their manner and presentation as for the beauty of their voices and their ability to execute elaborate ornamentation.

After Warnier’s rendition of ‘Si dolce è’l tormento (So sweet is the pain), the second half of the programme was dominated by Monteverdi’s Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda - based on Tasso’s mock-chivalric account in Gerusalemme liberate of the duel between Tancredi, the Christian soldier, and Clorinda, the Muslim warrior he loved, which ends with the death of Clorinda - which was composed in 1624, commissioned by Monteverdi’s patron Girolamo Mocenigo.

Interestingly, in comparison to the 1607 Orfeo, the practicalities of the premiere of which we know little, Monteverdi took great care to describe how this work should be performed - details which, for obvious reasons of practicality were not realised here. The two combatants were to be armed, Tancredi arriving ‘on horse’, Clorinda from the other side. There was to be no scenery. The instrumentation was also unusually precise: four viola da gamba. And, Combattimento should follow swiftly from the preceding madrigals in Book Eight, without gesture, with no warning. Clearly Monteverdi was determined it would make the utmost theatrical and expressive effect.

Here, such ‘effect’ was largely due to Staveland’s stunning control of the dominating narrative. His engagement and concentration never wavered; he united the drama; and though the melodic range of the narrator’s part is quite narrow he conjured variety and power, mirroring the passions of the text, and differentiating between direct speech and narration. I was transfixed. Tancredi and Clorinda are not able to express their own emotions until the very end. Dahlin’s high tenor line was both fraught with tension and softened by sentiment: a real human appeal, driven by an insistent and compelling anger. The instrumental playing was precise but never rigid - indeed, even quite ‘fey’ at times: the shivering concitato repetitions had real grace, while pizzicato swords clashed brightly and fanfares ‘trumpeted’ in rich triadic pronouncements.

This was a fairly short concert and so we were treated to an encore - though at over ten minutes, Luigi Rossi’s Serenata a tre voci: Amante ‘Rappresentan gl’orrori di questa notte’ might have been more appropriately positioned within the declared programme, which would have at least given us access to the text. It made for a divertingly light, and however well sung and played, not wholly satisfying close to the intense musico-dramatic expression of love and war which had preceded it.

Claire Seymour

Les Talens Lyriques : Christophe Rousset (harpsichord), Eugénie Warnier (soprano), Anders J Dahlin (tenor), Magnus Staveland (tenor)

Claudio Monteverdi - ‘Chiome d’oro’, ‘Quel sguardo sdegnosetto’, ‘O sia tranquillo il mare’ (Settimo libro de madrigali); Giovanni Kapsberger - Libro primo di sinfonie a quattro voci; Monteverdi - ‘Ohimè ch’io cado, ohimè’, ‘Ardo e scoprir’ ‘Lamento d’Arianna’ fromArianna, ‘Sì dolce è’l tormento’, Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda

Wigmore Hall, London; Thursday 21st February 2019.

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