If any ensemble could do justice to the delicate yet spirited madrigals of Luca Marenzio (1553-1599), it ought to be the nine vocalists, harp, theorbo and lute players of Concerto Italiano with their dynamic conductor and harpsichord player, Rinaldo Alessandrini. Their style felicitously combines polish and precision with emotional charge in such a way that the former enhances the latter. Listen to the dolorousness – which is not the same as droop – of the end of Vedi le valli [CD.1 tr.9], for example: there is just the right amount of sorrow without maudlin.
Similarly for some of the "springier" passages… the minute-long Menando un giorno [CD.1 tr.15], for example, exudes joy. But is not facetious. For madrigals are not easy works to perform. Their idiom is perhaps foreign now to a world familiar with the Lied and opera. Too foreign for us to see through the bubbling and knotted torrent of sound such that the madrigal has an impact in sung music analogous to that of consort (or indeed string quartet) instrumentally.
Yet it is the concentration without undue introversion (listen to the pauses for reflection and downward sweeps of Vezzosi augelli [CD.1 tr.12], for example: never a note of self-pity) that makes performances like those on this excellent 2-CD set from Naïve as part of its "Les Grands Millésimes de NAÎVE CLASSIQUE" reissues collection so worthwhile. The CDs come in a box measuring nearly 6" x over 9" with a cardboard inlay and what the advertising material calls a "book" (actually a 32-page booklet in French and English).
The performers are at home in the idiom, the language – of course – and the very sparse yet tightly-focused sound world of the Italian madrigal. Indeed, there are moments (such as the middle passages of Dolci son le quadrella [CD.1 tr.14], for example) when their delivery verges on the operatic: notes are held, pauses delayed, and the dynamic varied – all to reinforce the impact of the words. These words – mostly by Petrarch, with some by Sannazzaro and Tasso – are chosen (by Marenzio) for their obscurity, their anachronism and what we would probably call their "eclecticism" these days, one feels.
And of course it's the primacy of the text that strikes the listener, as the poetry itself inspired the composer. Despite the density of the works, these performers have succeeded in making each syllable as audible as one would hope. At times there is just a touch of sibilance; the acoustic is very close and intimate. But the overall level of communication is intense without being precious. The singers have also gently and without fuss made their sound as distant from that of Palestrina, who dominated music in Rome at the time they were being written, as it is possible to be.
Marenzio, an older contemporary of Monteverdi working chiefly in Rome, is usually contrasted with him: for Monteverdi's attention to the theatrical and purely musical Marenzio was more interested in the way the voices used harmonic texture to convey emotion. At times his chromaticism and (near) dissonance remind one of Gesualdo … Tutto 'l d'piango [CD.1 tr.17], for instance weeps with its voice. Not with tears. The way that Alessandrini draws the notes out almost reminds one that the madrigal had a very short time to live. Yet the singers' attachment to the words, their unselfconscious articulation of each line, is bolstered by a confidence in the texts and yields nothing to the pressures that the Italian musical world of the latter half of the sixteenth century was putting upon such enterprises. Resistance without regret – in the way that Brahms chamber works were written.
These two CDs contain 21 madrigals for four voices from Marenzio's First Book, which was published in Rome in 1585, on the first CD. And assorted madrigals from between 1580 and 1599 on the second. This is a marvelous calling card for Marenzio; much more than a contrast to the better known repertoire of Monteverdi. These performances will repay repeated listening and reveal new depths and intricacies at each turn. The well-produced booklet has useful and varied accompanying material. Given that there are fewer than half a dozen recordings dedicated to Marenzio, the pedigree of this one alone ought to recommend it. In fact the lucidity, body and absence of affectation commend it as an excellent exemplar of the Italian madrigal as a form, and those of this somewhat neglected composer in particular. Recommended.
Copyright © 2010, Mark Sealey.