March 07, 2024


Monteverdi: Madrigals, Books I-IX (complete). Concerto Italiano conducted by Rinaldo Alessandrini. Naïve. $42.99 (11 CDs).

     The madrigal is one of those classical-music forms with which listeners tend to think they are quite familiar: through-composed secular music for three to six voices dating to the Renaissance and early Baroque periods, and perfected above all by Monteverdi. Indeed, the madrigal form was considered so clearly identifiable that composers of much later time periods liked to use it for specific sorts of scene-setting – think of the madrigals in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado and Ruddigore, and for that matter of Anna Russell’s creation of a madrigal as part of her parodistic tribute to Gilbert and Sullivan! But as so often with things that “everyone knows,” it turns out that the matter of the madrigal is not so straightforward as tends to be believed – and that although Monteverdi certainly brought the traditional form to a pinnacle of expressiveness, he was far from its champion: he was actually responsible for hastening its demise by transforming elements of the madrigal into dramatic scenes and multi-voice or single-voice works (often with instruments) comparable to those in his operas.

     The true story of Monteverdi and the madrigal comes through with brilliant effectiveness in Naïve’s 11-disc release of all nine books of Monteverdi’s madrigals, performed with enormous skill, understanding and flair by Concerto Italiano under Rinaldo Alessandrini. The eight sets of madrigals published during Monteverdi’s lifetime appeared over more than half a century (1587-1638), with the ninth book (1651) being a posthumous collection of miscellany titled Madrigali e Canzonette; the recordings gathered for this superb release were made during more than a quarter of a century (1993-2021). Calling Monteverdi’s and Alessandrini’s productions prodigious and monumental is equally apt in both cases. There is simply no better ensemble in Monteverdi’s music than Concerto Italiano, and although the specific singers and instrumentalists changed significantly over time – wading through the details of just who performed what and when in this release is time-consuming and difficult, despite a presentation that, under the circumstances, makes it as easy as possible to do so (which is to say, not very easy) – the uniformly high quality of every single performance shows the tremendous knowledge and care that Alessandrini has always brought to performances by the group that he founded in 1984.

     Alessandrini is not only a superb musical guide to the Monteverdi madrigals but also an excellent verbal guide, offering a 21-page booklet essay on this repertoire that is at once erudite and deeply knowledgeable – and chatty and informal, as if Alessandrini is discussing a good friend (which, on one level, he is). The writing traces the changes that Monteverdi brought to the madrigal form and explains how he expanded and then went beyond it, rendering it archaic (if not obsolete) almost if not quite single-handedly. It also delves into the underlying characteristics of madrigal expressiveness – most importantly, keeping a compositional and performance focus on the words and their meaning and not allowing the musical settings to undermine or interfere with the verbiage. And Alessandrini points out some pitfalls associated with this very extended recording project – noting, for instance, that using native Italian speakers as singers can be a disadvantage as well as an advantage, since deep familiarity with everyday use of the language can result in de-emphasizing certain elements of the poetry that should not be glossed over.

     The importance of seeing and hearing madrigals as text-focused productions is further emphasized by a second booklet essay, a seven-page one by Renzo Bragantini that discusses the specific texts chosen by Monteverdi and some of the differences among the poets whose works he chose to set. This writeup also makes some fascinating points, showing how the choice of poetry changed as the nature of the madrigal itself did, with Monteverdi selecting different poets over time based on how he wanted his music to develop (and also, as is noted in passing, based on some political considerations involving the Italian city-states of his time).

     The strong focus on the madrigals’ texts by both Alessandrini and Bragantini points to the only serious flaw in this otherwise exemplary release: it contains no texts at all, so that when Alessandrini points to specific settings of specific words in specific pieces – as he often does – any reader who is not thoroughly familiar with the Italian language and with the specific writings set by Monteverdi will be well out of his or her depth. The omission of the texts – there is not even a link that would lead listeners to them online – is disappointing and deeply unsettling in light of the cogency of the arguments by Alessandrini and Bragantini about the words’ importance not only in madrigals but also in the more-operatic pieces into which they eventually changed (indeed, all of Italian opera evolved in the direction of prima le parole, notwithstanding Salieri’s Prima la musica e poi le parole – it was the German school that put the music first, and the French that kept both in balance).

     Despite the obscurity of some of the learned commentary within this boxed set as a result of the absence of texts, there is nothing obscure whatsoever in the performances. They simply glow. The first three books of madrigals (1587, 1590, 1592) adhere closely to what most listeners will expect in the form, although even in these earlier works there is a mixture of homophony and counterpoint that was somewhat at odds with the approach of older pieces in the form. The fourth and fifth books (1603, 1605) include a shift toward poetry of a more personal type and settings of increasing emotional heft. The sixth book (1614) contains elements that appear to be highly personal, and its madrigals often alternate solo vocal passages with polyphony. And then the seventh and eighth books (1619, 1638) move far beyond the traditional dimensions of the madrigal, bringing in settings for one, two, three, four and six voices and including scenes of high drama that are clearly and explicitly operatic in their emotional intensity and that, indeed, are frequently heard without any reference to their origin within sets of works that are now only nominally madrigals in the original sense: Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, Il Ballo della Ingrate.

     The incomparable richness of Monteverdi’s madrigals and madrigals-in-name-only is beautifully matched to the sensitivity and stylistic understanding of Alessandrini and Concerto Italiano. There has never been a survey of this music like this one: so self-assured, so carefully assembled, so sensitively sung and played, so beautifully recorded. Monteverdi’s importance in classical music can scarcely be overstated: his role as creator of the first opera recognizable as such (L’Orfeo, 1607) is commonly considered his greatest achievement, especially when added to his later composition of Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (1640) and L'incoronazione di Poppea (1643). This collection shows how, in transforming the polyphonic madrigal of the 15th and 16th centuries into a work of broader scope and considerably more emotional power, Monteverdi paved the way for his and others’ operatic works while producing pieces that, on their own merits, are wonderfully conceived and – as performed by Alessandrini and Concerto Italiano – impeccable in their elegance and beauty.

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