Notes and Editorial Reviews
A practised yet relaxed polish to a pleasing cross-section of Monteverdi’s secular madrigals.
I Fagiolini under their wry director Robert Hollingworth have a high reputation for insightful, trenchant and novel interpretations of Monteverdi. Their approach is also most often one that gets straight to the music as music - to be enjoyed and revelled in. This excellent CD is no exception. The dramatic, stylised world of the madrigal is celebrated not as an ‘example’ of anything, or a moment in the development of song. But as sensual, upbeat appreciation of the highest confluence of words and music. It helps that, for all their joy in deflating some accepted views of early music, I Fagiolini are at heart authenticists.
Again, this very generous recording is the better for that.
“Monteverdi’s madrigals are a theatre of the senses: touches, glances, scents, the textures of fabrics, of lips and skin…,” writes James Weeks in his pithy introductory essay. So it can be that we put on this CD and listen to a selection of carefully, yet vigorously, performed madrigals with delight and a degree of awe.
Not unfettered awe, because I Fagiolini have not gone for an abandon in this recording. That would have contradicted the idiom. This is not jazz, nor cabaret. For all their acknowledgement of what are at times somewhat stock conventions, I Fagiolini are quite aware that Monteverdi’s madrigals are full of genuine passion and seriousness. Nymphs and shepherds are people!
So it behoves an accomplished presentation of such material to uphold this respect. I Fagiolini do so on this record. Their Tirsi e Clori is as sobre, unselfconscious and hence as successfully communicative as can be. If an interpretation can convey the intensity as much of the fears, longing, despair and anger of the music as of its own virtuosity (the gestures, topoi and rhythms), it has succeeded. Paradoxically – given the ardour and excitement of Monteverdi’s style, and his texts – that’s exactly how I Fagiolini succeed here.
Fire and Ashes is the second volume of Monteverdi’s madrigals by the group. It is something of a box of treasures … there are offerings from all but the composer’s first and second books. The series is not progressing chronologically. This way, the enterprise does allow us to get a sense of the variety of the Monteverdi’s work. And some idea of his development from the simply conceived a cappella madrigals written in Mantua to the more sparse and searing later works.
If you want all the madrigals from all nine books, presumably you’ll eventually get them as the Chaconne series progresses. But you also seem unlikely to know which are coming when – and why. There is something intentionally random about the plan. If that, in fact, concentrates your mind more on the music than on its context, and if you want that, the system has worked. Some listeners will want a referenced collection through which they can find their way. Any compromise that this system makes is more than compensated for by the quality of the performances.
To move about in time also allows us – significantly – to appreciate how important was the text. The poetry was the common factor for all these works. It was the basis, after all, of the seconda prattica: audible and comprehensible words place an emphasis on the sense, the ideas and the supremacy of real, and really accessible, experience as represented in music. I Fagiolini are as strong in this respect as any recorded ensemble. Every syllable is translucent – if not actually transparent. The singers’ articulation is exemplary.
But there is also some painting… E cosi a poco a poco, for example, is theatrical in the extreme. A butterfly’s tiny wings beat. The lover is consumed. The message is clear – you can’t ‘overcome’ your desire. And in ten lines. To be effective and more striking than staid, there needs to be real intensity and focus. Those are qualities which these performers bring to the music in good measure.
In madrigals which postdate Monteverdi’s gravitation towards opera - from the time of the fourth book onwards - there is a leaner kind of attention to the passion and strain of the situations explored. The famous Si ch'io vorrei morire can actually leave more to innuendo than would have been possible ten years earlier. I Fagiolini – for all their penchant for the ribald – do this madrigal great service. By underplaying it. Similarly, Ogni amante e guerrier is conveyed with real subtlety despite the charged imagery and force of the sentiment expressed. Again, it’s the group’s belief in the words that counts and is so effective.
The acoustic is clear and clean in support of this wonderful music. The booklet carries the texts in Italian and English. In his own note, Hollingworth explains how much the series of live performances undertaken prior to the recordings helped. He also offers a ‘justification’ for this series when three Italian ensembles (Concerto Italiano under Alessandrini on Naïve; La Venexiana with Claudio Cavina on Glossa; Delitiae Musicae under Marco Longhini on Naxos) have recorded, or are recording, the same repertoire. It is, to paraphrase, that the music is so extraordinary, so profound, that there is indeed a place for the care and vision of I Fagiolini. On the evidence of this CD, it’s hard to disagree.
-- Mark Sealey, MusicWeb International
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