The Full Monte – Baroque Voices let ‘er rip for us

THE FULL MONTE (Concert Two)

Claudio MONTEVERDI – Madrigals (Books 2 and 9 – exerpts)

Baroque Voices, directed by Pepe Becker

Continuo: Douglas Mews (harpsichord) / Robert Oliver (bass viol)

Stephen Pickett (theorbo / baroque guitar)

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Wellington

Sunday 22nd April, 2012

Trying to analyze either truth or beauty brings one to despair at the inadequacy of one’s own command of language. And faced with the truth and beauty of a body of music such as Claudio Monteverdi’s madrigals, I’m conscious that any words I might try to muster up to connect with, describe or explain any aspect of such glorious sounds are not going to match that selfsame glory. The exercise makes one realize anew just why it is that music is regarded as conveying so much more than words ever could.

I’m forced to accept the realization that the best way of telling other people about Monteverdi’s music is to encourage them to experience some of it for themselves. And happily, this is what that wondrous group of musicians and associates, Wellington’s  Baroque Voices, led by Pepe Becker, have decided to make possible for us regarding those justly famous collections of madrigals by the Italian composer, no less than nine books of them, written over a period of more than fifty years, a virtual compositional lifetime.

The group’s aim is to present the entire collection of these works in concert, over a period of four years. The first in this series of concerts was performed almost a year ago last May, one that I attended and afterwards reviewed on RNZ Concert (as a footnote to this present review, I offer my notes from that radio interview, not a word-for-word transcript, but something which contains the essence of what was discussed on air).

Now the group has undertaken a second concert, true to its word, for our delight and pleasure. As they did with the first “The Full Monte” presentation, Baroque Voices aren’t  intending to slavishly follow the composer’s chronological order, but aim for some variety by setting groups of works from different eras in juxtaposition with one another. So it was that this concert alternated madrigals either singly or in pairings from Book Two and individually from Book Nine throughout the afternoon – which meant that we were being constantly confronted by what sounded like music from two different composers.

We had the youthful (1590) more traditionally-influenced composer following the rules of what he called “Prima Pratica” (the older, more conservative way of composition), his works unaccompanied, according to Renaissance tradition, alternated with works from the Ninth Book (published posthumously in 1651), music from a different century, of course, it must be remembered – these madrigals are instrument-accompanied, and the vocal writing is far freer, less predictable,  band more varied, including canzonette (trios) and two-part works whose immediacy of expression are in some cases practically operatic in feeling and in inclination.

As much as I’d like to take credit for what I thought was a perceptive comment regarding Monteverdi’s writing style, I have to confess that the following came from a commentator surveying a number of recordings of these works, and writing about what he thought as the best way for the listener to approach this music. He said, “Trying to understand Monteverdi by working backwards from Handel and Bach doesn’t work, because Monteverdi’s music is the culmination of the Renaissance style, one which looked to express the meaning behind every word of text. He took the “poetry of sound” to its highest level of expression, and in the process, created something which strikes our ears today in places as fiercely modern.”

Between the two concerts the personnel of the group changed a little. Tenor Peter de Blois was replaced by Phillip Collins, joining the other tenor, Oliver Sewell, and bass Benjamin Caukwell took the place of David Morriss. Otherwise, the voices that had delighted us throughout the first concert were there again for the second, and continuing to do so. Pepe Becker’s and Jayne Tankersley’s angelic soprano tones ensured that our sensibilities were kept more-or-less constantly airborne – though very different in individual timbres (very likely an advantage) their blending of their individual lines in places created both mellifluous and startling results! Christopher Warwick’s reliable counter-tenor again wove strong interconnecting lines and enriched those middle vistas with enlivened tones.

Throughout, the blending and contrasting of vocal tones was a constant delight to the listener’s ear – right from the opening “Non si levava ancor”, from Book Two, in which the textures opened like those of a flower, contrasted the mood with a certain mercurial energy, then took up the longer lines once more.I enjoyed those instances of marvellously “attenuated” lines in which a second singer would add to an already existing held note, making for an incredibly intense effect. The song’s totality seemed like some kind of perfection of realization, beginning with impulse, then generating tension, and finally – fruition.

The second item, “E dice l’una sospirand’ allora”, also from Book Two, reminded me of Thomas Tallis in places, with “modal” sounding progressions. As the work progressed the performers excitingly widened and intensified its range of expression, up to the vehement and very dramatic ending, with the “addio” repeated, the words living and breathing. From Book Nine then came a dialogue “Bel pastor, dal cui bel sguardo” between a shepherdess and her lover, Pepe Becker and tenor Phillip Collins played nicely into each other’s and the music’s hands, with delightfully capricious phrasings and figurations, exciting coloratura and winsome echoing of some of the florid passages – most entertaining!

Among the many other highlights was the energetic “Se vittorie si belle” from Book Nine, in which the instrumental ensemble sprang to energetic life, the small baroque guitar displaying real “attitude”, as the instrumentalists matching the singers’ rapid-fire exchanges, the words combatative and flailing about in all directions. Another was the Book Two “Tutte le bocche belle”, with its sublimely stratospheric soprano parts, creating a feeling all around of ecstasy on the wing with the bell-like tones. And the two sopranos gave us another palpable thrill a few minutes later, with the superbly-wrought “Quando dentro al tuo seno” (Book Nine), concluding with a palpably searing clash of seconds from Pepe Becker and Jayne Tankersley which was then brilliantly and fantastically resolved on the phrase’s final note. Sensational stuff!

This ought to have been a literal show-stopper, but we in the audience were perhaps too stunned by the power of the music and virtuosity of the singing to respond immediately! –  and so we waited until the more playful and light-hearted “S’andasse Amor a caccia” (Book Two) brought with its ending the interval. In fact, my only criticism of the concert was that we spectators felt the pressing need to applaud more often, but were stymied by a mixture of inhibition and reluctance to disturb the “spell” of the music-making. We needed, I think, at least one opportunity, midway through each half, to let off a bit of steam and give vent to our appreciation.

I could go on through the second half of the concert highlighting various other “highlights”, the “terraced” beauties of the very first song in the second half, “Mentre io miravo fiso” from Book Two, with its solid underlying harmonic progressions; or the overt, Barbara Strozzi-like emotionalism and volatility of Book Nine’s extraordinary “O sia tranquillo il mare”, the singers having more than ample temperament, sensibility and sustaining power to do these works full justice. Nor was emotive power the exclusive property of the Book Nine madrigals, as we discovered with the performance of the beautiful but intensely dramatic “Dolcemente dormiva la mia Clori” from Book Two, with its lovely, elaborately-turned final cadential measures.

I did think the group right at the end could have chosen a fuller-ensembled madrigal with which to finish, rather than slavishly pursuing the numerical order of the Book Two set  which concluded with the single-sopranoed  “Cantai un tempo…” – as with the concert’s first half, it was the penultimate madrigal which I thought would have made a better and more concerted “finish” here, the Book Two “Ti sponto l’ali, Amor, la donna mia” with its roulades of intense, rolling sound and fearlessly-attacked high notes (soprano Jayne Tankersley in particular in spectacular form). But this, like the very few other criticisms I’ve dredged up, was a minor matter, as smoke compared with Pepe Becker’s and Baroque Voices’ stunning achievement in this music. Even more so than I felt at the conclusion of the first concert of “The Full Monte” in 2011, I now await with impatience the group’s third instalment of these remarkable works.


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2011 Review: The Full Monte (Concert One)

Baroque Voices’ performances of music from the entire collection of nine Books of Madrigals

by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)

Baroque Voices: Pepe Becker (soprano) / Jayne Tankersley (soprano) / Christopher Warwick (countertenor)

Peter de Blois (tenor) / Oliver Sewell (tenor) / David Morriss (bass)

Continuo players: Douglas Mews (harpsichord) / Robert Oliver (bass viol)

Il Primo Libro de Madrigali (for five voices) 1587 (complete)

Madrigali e canzonette  (for two and three voices) from Libro Nono 1651

Concert 1 Sunday 1st May 2011, Sacred Heart Cathedral, Wellington

(from a review by Peter Mechen for “Upbeat” with Eva Radich)


PLAY MUSIC : Filli car e amata (Phyllis, my dear beloved) – Poi che del mio dolor (Since you enjoy feeding on my sufferings) (from Il Primo Libro)

“The Full Monte” – the title suggests revealing something or stripping something off, as in the film of the same name. So, what was done to or with Monteverdi?

Baroque Voices in this concert began what’s intended to be a complete survey of the Madrigals of Claudio Monteverdi. Monteverdi wrote nine books of Madrigals, and gradually evolved his own style of expression. So the early books are in the grand polyphonic tradition of the Renaissance, although one can hear distinctive voices striving for deeper and more overt expression every now and then. And by the time the composer came to write his later books he had ushered in a new style of vocal writing, much freer and more overtly expressive than the old. Baroque Voices performed the entire Book one of the madrigals and interspersed groups of them with selections from Book Nine, music that came almost a whole lifetime later, in fact.……..

How did the idea work, of alternating works by a composer from both the beginning and the end of his creative life?

It worked well – it was a situation where different ways of presenting the music would have made for an equally fascinating, but different, result. Part of the reason everything worked is that the music is so good, so instantly combustible to the ear, so that it became a case of registering differences rather than improvements. The early Monteverdi wasn’t at all shamed or cast low by what we heard of the later works. What was fascinating was how one often heard pre-echoes of the composer’s later style, so that the experience was more organic than one might have thought it would be..……..

So what are the differences between early Monteverdi and late Monteverdi in his madrigal writing?

When Monteverdi was young he wrote madrigals in the old-fashioned sense of the word -that is, following the rules of Renaissance Polyphony……….. These early works were unaccompanied five-part madrigals, and the rules consisted of things like having equal voice parts, preparing the listener for dissonances, certain prescribed chordal progressions were used, and the work’s musical structure was paramount.  By contrast, the later Monteverdi deals in bold dissonances, sudden tempo changes, radical harmonic shifts, chromaticism, florid vocal ornamentation – a generally more volatile and spontaneous attitude towards realizing the meaning of the poetic settings.……….We’ll hear two of these early madrigals: “Amor per tua merce” (Cupid, take pity on me), followed by “Baci soave e cari” (Sweet, dear kisses).

So, what do we expect the group to be doing in this group of two madrigals?

It’s music that’s very light on its feet, with the lyrical sections having  a lovely soaring quality. Listen for the lovely voice-blend in both works, and in the second madrigal the soprano’s unflinching attack on the high notes, even if the intonation isn’t absolutely true all the time. There’s a lovely blend achieved by the group here, and the ebb and flow of the work is beautifully controlled.…….

PLAY: Monteverdi “Amor per tua merce” (Cupid, take pity on me”) and “Baci soave e carry” (Sweet, dear kisses) from Book One of Monteverdi’s Madrigals for five voices (1587).

The music sounds amazing – what is it that you think gives it that compelling quality, that instant connection?

In this case, definitely a combination of the music and its performance. The music itself is extraordinary – last year with the performance of the Vespers by the same singers we got a tremendous demonstration of how vivid and communicative Monteverdi’s music can be – and even without that array of wonderful instruments these madrigals still have the power to engage. You can hear, especially in the later works but even occasionally in the earlier works, how, with such expressivity it was easy for this music to become operatic. Monteverdi’s concern with his vocal works was to give the words and their meaning pre-eminence over musical structures and harmonic progressions – he insisted that it was a case of “Prima le parole, poi la musica….” (first the words, then the music). HIs First Book of Madrigals, though it generally follows the traditional styles of the late Renaissance, occasionally gives an indication of the composer’s desire to pursue more modern styles of writing – he considered “the words are the mistress of harmony, not the servant”. Monteverdi had been criticized by at least one of his contemporaries for what were called “crudities” and “license” in his music, and his response was to coin the name “Seconda Pratica” (Second Practice), aligning himself with other composers who preferred the innovative style, and serving himself and his work apart from what he called the “Prima Practica” (First Practice) of the more traditional composers.

The performances sound terrific! – what was it like being there and feeling the force of it all?

Like all performing groups worth their salt, this group invites total immersion on the part of the listener. It was an incredibly involving experience, of course very much an art that conceals art, because this degree of involvement by the performers in this music  which washed over and all around us was of course possible through skills and techniques that enabled the singers to put the message across so tellingly. If one was looking for faults, there were moments of raw tone, and of one or two not-quite on the note unexposed entries, and a couple of instances of not-quite-matching figurations with singers in duet  but these were so few and far between, and often what might have seemed a rawness, a slightly off-pitched note, a momentary inequality of vocal figuration in duet, also created expressive effects of their own. Now music-making can only do that if it’s generally on an exalted level – like Alfred Cortot’s wrong notes on his recordings – “spots on the sun” I think one commentator called them.And the music-making by this group was of such brilliance, power and depth, that occasional minor lapses took on that “spots on the sun” quality. All in all, I thought the concert was an outstanding achievement.

So, we’re going to hear one of the later madrigals, from Book Nine, in fact – what does one listen for?

Well, it’s a wonderful example of how Monteverdi took his style along further – a very dramatic and theatrical setting of the words, with frequent irruptions of feeling inspired by the text’s meaning – you can hear and feel the surge of emotion and the graphic realization of the words “to cry for help to end my terrible torment”, for example – and then, at the end, the throwaway line “for she causes the words to break on my lips”. Remarkable.

Here’s Pepe Becker and Jane Tankersley, accompanied by Douglas Mews harpsichord and Robert Oliver bass viol.

PLAY: Monteverdi “Ardo e scoprir” (I burn) from Book Nine of Monteverdi’s Madrigals for two and three voices (1651)

Pepe Becker and Jayne Tankersley, sopranos, with Douglas Mews and Robert Oliver bass viol.

It does move the whole scenario that much closer to opera, doesn’t it? 

Well, of course Monteverdi had by now written his famous operas, which were among the first ever written. His earliest surviving opera, L’Orfeo, was first performed in 1607. One of the things that make these works really zing is the quality of the poetry – Monteverdi was using verses by some of the most famous poets of the time, Tasso, Guarini and Rinuccini, people whose use of emotive, sensuous imagery was unparalleled.

Even in the earlier madrigals which are more conventional and perhaps “reined in” emotionally compared with the later ones, the writing is of an order that Monteverdi was fully able to explore and push out the boundaries of what could be expressed – the poetry simply went with him – or, maybe, he simply went with the poetry.

To finish, here’s a couple of shorter madrigals from the First Book, in which you can hear the young composer already responding to the ebb and flow of the very emotional poetry. We’re going to hear the ensemble of Baroque Voices singing firstly “Questa ordi il laccio” (She it was who wove the snare”, followed by a look at a kind of Little Bo Peep of Monteverdi’s time, “La Vaga Shepherdess”.

PLAY TO FINISH: Monteverdi “Questa ordì il laccio”(She it was who wove the snare) and “La vaga pastorella” (The lovely shepherdess) (from Il Primo Libro 1587)


















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