Purest Monteverdian joy from I Fagiolini at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Monteverdi: I Fagiolini / Robert Hollingworth (director / organ). Wigmore Hall, London, 29.4.2024. (CC)

I Fagiolini and Robert Hollingworth (director / organ) at the Wigmore Hall

Monteverdi – O primavera, gioventù dell’anno, SV68; ‘Rimanti in pace’ a la dolente e bella, SV74; Lamento della ninfa, SV163; Sfogava con le stelle, SV78; Longe da te, cor mio, SV92; Salve o regina, SV326; Cruda Amarilli, SV94; Era l’anima mia, SV96; Parlo, miser, o taccio?, SV136; Lamento d’Arianna (Secondo), SV107

I Fagiolini’s discs of Monteverdi have been rightly welcomed within the critical confraternity. To hear them at the Wigmore Hall on a Monday lunchtime was, basically purest joy (and, given that the subject of the concert was lament filtered through a Monteverdian prism, purest sorrow, too, but in the best possible way).

Beginning with a pair of madrigals from Monteverdi’s Third Book meant Spring could come into Wigmore Street with a madrigal that begins with a cruelly exposed high tenor entry, O primavera, gioventù dell’anno – all credit to Mathew Long for phrasing that so beautifully. The madrigal praises Spring as ‘youthful season of the year’ via the words of Giovanni Battista Guarini, celebrating ‘d’erbe novelle e di novelli amori’ (tender grasses and new loves) before turning inwards. The textures of ‘Tu ben, lasso, ritorni’ (‘You indeed, also, can return’) seemed almost bare, as if despite the exterior beauty and bounty of Nature, the inside of the pining lover was empty. It is a remarkable madrigal, not least in the pureness of its close, as the lines converge on ‘altrui’ (‘Si caro a gli occhi altrui’ / ‘So dear to the eyes of others’). In contrast, ‘Rimanti in pace’ a la dolente e bella (‘Remain in peace’ said Thyrsis, sighing) unfolds slowly. There are some crunchy dissonances here (preparing for even more modern-sounding passages later in the concert), but it was the slow unveiling that was so beautiful. The two madrigals are linked as each open with a solo tenor, but in very different ways. I Fagiolini’s has the ability to sing quietly with complete control, and then to use this as an internalising strategy, carrying the audience to whispered sorrows of the heart. A remarkable madrigal, stunningly performed: time seemed to stand still in the final two lines: ‘Deh, cara anima mia, chi me ti toglie?’ (‘Ah, my dear soul’). In his commentary, Hollingworth described it as a ‘slow car crash in music’ …

From his Madrigals of War and Love, the Lamento della ninfa is another famous madrigal, the singers now joined by Eligio Quinteiro on chitarrone. Here the dissonances are cranked up (‘like a sort of beautiful black and white grainy-filmed bit of mud wrestling,’ as Hollingworth cryptically put it). Matthew Long, Greg Skidmore and Frederick Long formed the trio here, Rebecca Lea the lamenting soprano. The combination of organ, chitarrone and deeply affecting falling double bass added a sense of the ongoing tramp of time. The soprano, memorably, is gifted the descending line at the onset of the stanza ‘Perchè di lui mi struggo’ (‘Since my pining for him’).

Possibly to a text by Ottavio Rinuccini, Sfogava con le stelle (Crying to the stars) begins with an explosion of emotion, launched by the memorable ‘s’ then ‘f’ sound of its opening word. The madrigal opens out beautifully at ‘O immagini belle’ (‘Oh, lovely images’); one-to-a-part enabled this moment to appear as if shot through with light. Low melismas, too, could be heard in perfect detail. This motet includes, as so often the case in the Fourth Book of Madrigals, a parlando style as delivered in falsobordone (reflecting a tendency of the time towards greater clarity of text).

After that, Longe da te, cor mio (Far from you, my heart), its slow trajectory shot through with dissonance, made a fine close to this set of three.

Off to church, then. Or, rather, not quite: the ‘o’ in Salve o regina implies a gloss on the Marian antiphon Salve regina. It is a remarkable piece, chitarrone and organ forming a background to the sense of increasing urgency as the text repeats short phrases: ‘Salve, O regina, O mater, O vita, O spes, O clemens, O pia’ (Hail, O Queen, O mother, life, and hope, O kindly, compassionate …). The written-out melismas are terrifically exciting, and certainly were in Mathew Long’s performance. Nice to contrast that with the more static and chordal Cruda Amarilli (Cruel Amarillis) – itself notable for the timbral change at the mention of a snake (‘Ma de l’aspido wordo’ / ‘But that the deaf snake’). The use of dissonance in this motet is also striking, with the superius entering a ninth from the root and moving down to the seventh, at which point the chord – a dominant seventh – resolves. This caused outrage at the time: and Monteverdi’s music retains its sense of daring newness in performances such as these.

The extra transparency of Era l’anima mia and the text link between that and Cruda Amarilli (the protagonist of the latter intending to die in silence, the former piece portraying a person in their last hours on Earth) made this the perfect coupling: they are both from the Fifth Book of Madrigals.

Finally, a madrigal preceding one of the greatest of Monteverdi’s works: the Lamento d’Arianna (in its version from the Sixth Book of Madrigals). The solo voice version of the Lamento is very free; this is in five voices. Hollingworth called it the ‘most involved, most difficult’ motet by Monteverdi, explaining some of the challenges in accurately reproducing the writing. The madrigal Parlo, miser, o taccio? (Should I, poor wretch, speak out, or be silent?) was the warm-in, close-knit chords seeming to spin out into infinity, an extravagance of action grounded by organ and chitarrone.

Any and all of the terrifying technical difficulties of the Lamento seemed completely vanquished by I Fagiolini in this remarkable performance of a remarkable piece. The insistence of Rinuccini’s questions in his text, and the simply exquisite blending and balancing of chords elsewhere were all parts of a grater whole that took all the combined pain of the recital so far for a walk into utter despair. We know the opera Arianna was itself produced in Mantua in 1608 and the success of the lament led Monteverdi to compose this elaborate five-voice piece. Searing dissonances abound.

One encore: a reprise of Sfogava, just as lovely as the first time.

Colin Clarke

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