Italian Madrigals Brought to Life at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom ‘Io morirò d’Amore’ – Marenzio, Monteverdi, and Gesualdo: La Compagnia del Madrigale [Rossana Bertini, Francesca Cassinari (sopranos), Elena Carzaniga (contralto), Giuseppe Maletto (tenor), Raffaele Giordani, Daniele Carnovich (basses)], Wigmore Hall, London, 7.2.2016. (MB)

MarenzioIo morirò d’Amore
MonteverdiAnima mia, perdona
GesualdoT’amo mia vita
MarenzioCruda Amarilli
MonteverdiEcco mormorar l’onde
MarenzioFilli, volgendo i lumi
GesualdoO dolorosa gioia
MarenzioDura legge d’Amor
GesualdoO dolce mio tesoro
MonteverdiEcco, Silvio, colei
GesualdoAl mio gioir il ciel si fa sereno
MonteverdiDolcemente dormiva la mia Clori
MarenzioVivrò dunque lontano
GesualdoChiaro risplender suole
MonteverdiCruda Amarilli
GesualdoMoro lasso al mio duolo

There was no doubting the musical and verbal acuity of these performances from La Compagnia del Madrigale, making their Wigmore Hall debut here. I struggled to put my finger on what I felt might have been missing; the audience certainly responded warmly, and I felt that I learned a great deal both from the programming and the performances. It would be foolish, of course, to expect madrigals such as these to blaze in the same way that, for instance, Monteverdi’s later, concerted works do. Perhaps that was part of my difficulty; perhaps it was also a matter of my own lack of intimacy with the Italian language, for these are unquestionably ‘literary’, connoisseur’s pieces, in which understanding the meaning of the words is only a small part of the battle. All of which is really a way of saying that, if at times I felt a little more enthusiastic than many, if at times I longed for a little more of the way in almost clichéd ‘Italianate’ colour, the fault most likely lay with me rather than with the performances.

Luca Marenzio’s Io morirò d’Amore gave its name to the concert as a whole, and made for a splendid intrada. The idea of proceeding to die for love coloured the texts and much of the music of what followed. There was an overwhelming sadness, lightly worn yet unmistakeable, to Monteverdi’s Anima mia, perdona, one of a number of settings of Giovanni Battista Guarini. I was put in mind, not for the last time, of the composer’s Orfeo, seemingly but a stone’s throw away. The singers’ colouring of individual notes and phrases, here and elsewhere, seemed to fit seamlessly into awareness and communication of the shape of the poem and its setting. Gesualdo’s T’amo mia vita, also a Guarini setting, offered pleasing musico-poetic symmetry – ‘“T’amo mia vita” la mia cara vita’ – within a life that had been lived. That madrigal and the ensuing Marenzio Cruda Amarilli (Guarini again), offered a variety of vocal textures, again within a convincing poetic whole; the performance of the latter was beautifully unhurried, indeed ‘aristocratic’, to use that almost unavoidable word.

For me, it was Monteverdi’s Tasso setting from his Second Book, Ecco mormorar l’onde, which was perhaps the highlight of the concert: we witnessed, it seemed, a strange, quickening marriage, in work and performance, between tradition and innovation. Already, with the advantage and disadvantage of hindsight, there stood here the father of musical modernity, at least as strongly entitled to that accolade as Haydn. And yet, there was courtliness too. The whole world seemed a stage. The individuality and complementarity of voices, again in work and in performance, contributed greatly to our enchantment.

Chiaroscuro was much on my mind in Marenzio’s Filli, volgendo i lumi, continuing with Tasso, in an almost painterly performance. The sado-masochism of Gesualdo’s text in O dolorosa gioia was matched and, I think, pierced by his musical chromaticism; more than once, I thought not only of crucifixion but also of the sweet assurance of atonement. The final compositional and performative twist on ‘vivo’ was something surely to be relished. Finally, in the first half, Marenzio’s Petrarch setting, Dura legge d’Amor! had us feel the harshness of its title and text without exaggeration: courtly lovesickness, one might say. Collegiality and amorous sparring were hallmarks of the performance, within an overarching context of the melancholic. The words ‘Come senza languir si more e langue’ offered a desolate close indeed.

Gesualdo returned after the interval, with his O dolce mio tesoro. I loved tracking the progress, often eccentric, of individual lines in relation to others, all within the framework of the composer’s bizarre mood-swings. ‘Romantic’? Maybe, maybe not. At any rate, the strangeness was brought subtly to life. Monteverdi’s lengthy Guarini setting (Book V), Ecco, Silvio, colei was subtly – that word again – and persuasively shaped. It was here, above all, that I missed something a little stronger, more interventionist; however, as I said, I suspect that the performers were in the right and that I simply need to immerse myself more in this repertoire. Two of the three Gesualdo settings remaining, Al mio gioir il ciel si fa sereno and Chiaro risplender suole, benefited from warm precision: a faithful guide through compositional surprises. Monteverdi’s Dolcemente dormiva la mia Clori and Cruda Amarilli (a nice counterpart to Marenzio’s setting, heard in the first half) offered a multiplicity of ‘voices’, even of emotions; but quite rightly, one had to make the effort as listener to hear them all. A rich-toned performance of Marenzio’s rich-toned Vivrò dunque lontanto was clearly founded, again rightly, upon verbal nuance.

Finally, we heard Gesualdo’s Moro lasso al mio duolo. Its opening chromaticism – if we can call it that, I know… – led to still stranger music, reminding me of the composer’s attraction for Stravinsky. Quite what one should make of it, I am not at all sure, but its instability was subtly – again – represented, without any need of exaggeration. In the spirit of the concert as a whole, the performers paid Gesualdo the compliment of treating his madrigal as music rather than as effect.

Mark Berry

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