November 25, 2020


Monteverdi: Orfeo. Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, Emōke Baráth, Natalie Pérez, Alix le Saux, Jérôme Varnier, Mathilde Etienne, Nicolas Brooymans, Fulvio Bettini, Zachary Wilder, Juan Sancho, Alicia Amo; Ensemble Vocal de Poche and I Gemelli conducted by Emiliano Gonzalez Toro. Naïve. $22.79 (2 CDs).

Monteverdi: Il Terzo Libro de’ Madrigali. Concerto Italiano conducted by Rinaldo Alessandrini. Naïve. $11.99.

Love Enfolds Thee Round: Christmas Music. TENET Vocal Artists. Old Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     It is truly amazing to realize that more than 400 years after its first production in 1607, Monteverdi’s Orfeo continues to delight audiences and inspire considerable musical creativity among performers. The excellent new recording from Naïve, which has a triple focus on Emiliano Gonzalez Toro without ever seeming to be a mere ego trip for him, is the latest in a long line of excellent readings of the score – and now that historical performance practice is so widespread, it is also the latest evidence of how important it is to perform the music of Monteverdi’s time in the way that composers of that era intended it to be played. That triple focus on Toro results because, first of all, he is the lead tenor in this production; secondly, it is his ensemble, I Gemelli, that performs the instrumental parts; and third, he himself conducts. We have become used to early-music professionals conducting from the keyboard, but conducting “from the vocals” is something new and different – and could easily veer out of control if the conductor’s personality were to become preeminent. That is not, however, the case with Toro, who is certainly primus inter pares among the 11 soloists but who never overshadows the others when they have been placed by Monteverdi in the limelight. For example, the madrigalists (Alix le Saux, Nicolas Brooymans, Zachary Wilder and Alicia Amo) form a fine-sounding, sure-voiced quartet in addition to playing roles within the operatic drama – respectively, Speranza and Pastore; Plutone and Pastore; Pastore I and Spirito; and Pastore II and Spirito. Granted, the roles of shepherds and underworld spirits are of far less consequence than is that of Orfeo himself, but the point is that Toro understands the importance of those roles to the overall drama, and also gives the madrigal quartet its musical due on its own terms. Essentially, Toro sees Orfeo as a work in which the title character, who in ancient myth accompanied himself on the lyre, now “accompanies” himself “on” the orchestra. This is an interesting conception and quite true to the musical ideas of Monteverdi’s time, when vocal material continued to be quite dominant over instrumental music (which mainly supported or imitated the sung lines). Toro’s approach makes the instrumental material more important while at the same time increasing the dramatic flow of the narrative. Two of the many occasions on which this pays important dividends are in the Act II lament, Tu se’ morta, and the Act III arrival of Orfeo in Hell, Scorto da te. But there are also many other places where Toro’s firm command of his own vocal part merges in highly commendable fashion with the sung elements of the other 10 soloists, and with the instrumental ensemble (which is mostly viols but also, intriguingly, includes an actual chitarrone of Monteverdi’s own time). Orfeo is generally acknowledged as the first opera in anything like a modern sense, and certainly its use of drama along with vocal commentary, and its integration (still on a tentative basis) of instrumental music with the vocals, show why it deserves to be thought of that way. But what Toro does so well in this performance is to handle the work as a living example of effective music-making, not a mere museum piece that happens to get in a lot of pleasant playing and nice singing. In returning to the roots of Orfeo, Toro and the other performers here have given Monteverdi distinct contemporary power even as they have stayed true to the expectations and practices of the early 17th century.

     Monteverdi is known as much for his madrigals as for his operas – indeed, the two forms are interrelated and are closer to each other than, say, songs and operas of more-modern times. Toro formed his period orchestra only in 2018, but Monteverdi’s madrigals have received ongoing attention for more than three decades from Rinaldo Alessandrini and the ensemble he formed 36 years ago, Concerto Italiano. Although the group’s membership has changed over time, Alessandrini’s guidance has not, becoming if anything even firmer and more assured through the years – as is evident from a new Naïve release of Monteverdi’s third book of madrigals. There are 15 works here, three of them in multiple sections, and all handled with exceptional beauty of tone and assuredness of ensemble by sopranos Francesca Cassinari, Monica Piccinini and Sonia Tedla; mezzo-soprano Maria Chiara Gallo; altos Elena Carzaniga and Andres Montilla; tenor Raffaele Giordani; and basses Gabriele Lombardi and Salvo Vitale. Monteverdi (1567-1643) was only 25 when he set these works, but already his choices of poetry were pointing to his later interest in and preoccupation with the drama and emotional engagement that he was to use in his operas to such fine effect. Torquato Tasso’s Le Gerusalemme Liberata is a major source here: Monteverdi drew on it for six of the 20 tracks on the CD. But even more of the music goes with poetry by Giovanni Battista Guarini, whose poems are set by the composer nine times in this book of madrigals. The remainder of the words are by Livio Celano (two madrigals), Pietro Bembo (one), and anonymous poets (two). The words’ venue is crucial, since here as in his operas, Monteverdi is working in a style in which the verbal expressions are paramount and the music exists to support the singers – indeed, it was from this style that Monteverdi began very tentatively to diverge in Orfeo as he sought ways to heighten the drama and emotion of the narrative. In the madrigals, each work stands on its own but is connected thematically with others; and Monteverdi varies the sound world through differing mixtures of voices and changing the number of singers among the madrigals and sometimes within individual pieces. Alessandrini’s full-on commitment to original performance practice shines through everywhere here, and the singers’ comfort with historic presentation methods keeps the music alive and often surprisingly lively: there is no doubt that the secular madrigals tie, in their basic sound, to a considerable amount of church music, even though the two expressive areas were deemed quite distinct (and largely incompatible) in Monteverdi’s time. The use of madrigalists within Orfeo shows how madrigals themselves were altered in purpose and approach as the dramatic and emotional needs of opera began to emerge; at the same time, hearing these madrigals in their original purity and self-contained beauty, without the need to advance any particular dramatic agenda, makes it possible to appreciate anew just how lovely the human voice can be when employed a cappella by a composer with Monteverdi’s sensitivities to both words and music.

     The TENET Vocal Artists are also specialists in early music, but they strike out in a different and very pleasantly expressive direction on an Olde Focus Recordings disc with a Christmas-through-the-ages theme. This is a cleverly arranged CD, in which early works such as Bach’s O Jesulein süss and the very, very old Veni mater gracie/Dou way Robin (which dates to 1349 in Yorkshire) are interspersed with much later material from Vaughan Williams (Wither’s Rocking Hymn), Holst (Lullay my liking), Hubert Parry (Welcome Yule, which opens the recording), and Peter Warlock (Bethlehem Down). Far from being a collection of well-known secular tunes, this beautifully sung CD certainly includes secular elements (Francis Cutting’s version of Greensleeves) but carefully places them in the context of the sacred meaning of the Christmas holiday (the Cutting work appears between the spiritual Sweet little Jesus boy and Jonathan Woody’s arrangement of What child is this). The result is a disc that reaches out beyond the strictly religious but remains firmly rooted in the Christian concept that lies at the heart of Christmas as it is understood today and has been for centuries. The TENET Vocal Artists are just as comfortable and just as eloquent in Italian (St. Alphonsus Liguori’s Tu scendi dalle stelle) and French (the traditional Un flambeau, Jeanette, Isabelle) as in English – not to mention Bach’s German and the Yorkshire work’s Latin. The singers pronounce words not only correctly but also feelingly, conveying the emotions underlying each of these pieces even to listeners who find the music unfamiliar and may not know some of the languages at all. This communicative skill is quite a gift. The remaining pieces on the 22-track disc are Elizabeth Poston’s Jesus Christ the apple tree, Herbert Howells’ A Spotless Rose, David Willcocks’ The Infant King (Sing lullaby), Woody’s arrangements of Rise up shepherd and follow and Coventry Carol, John Goss’ See amid the winter’s snow, the traditional Sussex Carol, Michael Praetorius’ Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen, Walford Davies’ The holly and the ivy, Peter Cornelius’ Three kings from Persian lands afar, and Norman dello Joio’s Hush thee, princeling. The British – specifically Anglican – orientation of the disc is quite clear, but this is music that reaches out well beyond any one specific religious tradition and, indeed, beyond the spiritual sector altogether, except insofar as music itself has a spiritual dimension that elevates, inspires and delights. And that is precisely what this beautifully sung disc does: it raises the spirit, informs it with the hope and meaning of Christmas, and simply sounds wonderful.

No comments:

Post a Comment