Madrigals for a Tudor King is a collection on the new Obsidian label (we have already favorably reviewed "Tomkins - These Distracted Times" - Obsidian CD702) of short works by Philippe Verdelot: only one is longer than five minutes; most shorter than three and a half. He lived from between 1480 and 1485 to between 1530 to 1532. French, he spent most of his life in Italy, where he is credited with devising the Italian madrigal.
Almost as compelling as the music itself is its provenance. This is told by David Skinner, Alamire's founder and conductor, in the (rather difficult to read: fawn on chocolate) liner notes, which also contain all the texts in English and Italian. Towards the end of the 1520s the City of Florence, where Verdelot had worked since 1521, made a gift of five partbooks (one for each vocal line) to English King Henry VIII. They were soon lost; although a Catholic Recusant, Francis Tregian the Younger, made an anthology as he lay condemned to death in the Fleet prison in London almost a century later. It's unclear what happened after that until four of the volumes were bought by the Newberry Library in Chicago over 300 years later. It turned out that the fifth, the altus, had never left England; the scholar, H Colin Slim was able – in 1978 in the journal Early Music – to write up the find and provide transcriptions of the 30 madrigals (the volumes also contained the same number of motets) with all the parts together. In passing, it's salutary to note what a huge proportion of early English vocal writing has not survived beyond the era in which is was written and performed. Here is music which has – barely. And we should be grateful and treasure it. It's pleasing, unassuming and varied music – and well performed by Alamire, the members of which are clearly in their element here. Skinner assesses the collection of madrigals which are recorded in their entirety (a further 30 years later) for the first time on this recommendable CD as "…one of the most important secular sources of the early sixteenth century."
Indeed, Verdelot not only consorted with the likes of Machiavelli and the cultural élite in a Republican Florence in which control had recently been wrested by the Medici from Savonarola's factions. He was also at home using the texts of Petrarch, Martello and Machiavelli himself in the new and vibrant form we hear here. The musical forms are several: canzona, ballata, sonnet and their derivatives. The corresponding musical formats are highly declamatory, simple, forceful and very approachable, not to say intimate – as in the delicate and delightful Con l'angelico riso [tr.2], for example. Nothing in this music over-reaches itself. Nothing pretentious or pompous. Yet the import and weight it carries are never in doubt. The happy blend between directness and clear direction is helped enormously by the tight yet fluid style of the half dozen singers (with Lynda Sayce's lute and Renaissance harp; she has half a dozen solos) of Alamire.
Above all, Verdelot's madrigals are plainer and more monolithic either than those of the English school a couple of generations later, certainly than those of Monteverdi and Marenzio. Listen to the directness throughout Quando nascesti, Amore? [tr.9], for example; it's not the only one with the driven nature of a German Lied, almost. Similarly Piove da li occhi [tr.10]. There is counterpoint. But it's always in the service of the text, not as a musical device in its own right.
This refreshing lucidity can be explained by remembering that the plainness and formality insisted on by the even pre-Tridentine Catholic church still held sway. Such clarity and uncompromisingly sparse (as opposed to ornate) musical and verbal textures must have appealed to the court to which – as has been said – the collection was presented, probably in 1526. It's particularly interesting to speculate how the madrigal might have developed as a genre had its first advocates been the likes of Adrian Willaert, say, and not Verdelot re-enforced by Jacob Arcadelt's equally pure and simple style. As one listens to this gentle yet moving music, one is aware of Alamire's skill: they do not seem to need consciously to exercise restraint in the way they introduce and develop the immediate, candid and straightforward musical ideas of Verdelot. Rather let his undeviating honesty declare itself to the full. Splendid. Try Donna, se fera stella [tr.16] for a distillation of this.
Skinner has Alamire perform with a variety of sonorities… ensemble, solo, accompanied, unaccompanied. This adds to the variety and interest; though sufficiently accomplished was Verdelot in his attachment and sensitivity to text that such changes are a bonus and in no sense longed for. This CD – while it has a historical interest, and a significant one – very much holds its own as music of great delight and import. We are to be grateful to David Skinner, Alamire and Obsidian for bringing it to our attention with such style and aplomb. Don't hesitate.
Copyright © 2008 by Mark Sealey