The Full Monte – music of love’s distraction, from Baroque Voices


Claudio Monteverdi – Madrigals : Books 3 (complete) and 7 (excerpts)

Baroque Voices, directed by Pepe Becker

Pepe Becker, Jayne Tankersley (sopranos) / Andrea Cochrane (alto)

Oliver Sewell, Geoffrey Chang (tenors) / David Morriss (bass)

Continuo: Robert Oliver (bass viol) / Stephen Pickett (theorbo and chitarrino)

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Wellington

Monday, 16th July, 2012

The third instalment of Wellington vocal group Baroque Voices’ stupendous traversal of “The Full Monte”, or the complete Madrigals of Claudio Monteverdi, drew forth a vein of riches and delights similar in broad-brush stroke terms to the first two concerts. Artistic director Pepe Becker’s idea of combining books of madrigals from different ends of the spectrum of the composer’s output has made for startling contrasts in performance style and emphasis within single concerts.

One would have thought that, as the gap between the two divergent creative periods lessened, there would be more commonality in evidence – but to my ears, the gulf between the composer’s “Prima Practica” (traditional practice) and “Seconda Practica” (innovative practice) seemed throughout this concert as marked as throughout the first two concerts of the series. Of course, the instrumental accompaniments used by the later books (beginning with the Fifth Book of 1605) markedly change the entire sound-picture of the works, but the vocal writing is different as well – more spontaneous, dramatic and volatile than with many of the earlier works.

I confess to not knowing the music of Monteverdi’s contemporaries sufficiently well to comment on the individuality of his earlier works – still, these concerts do allow the unschooled listener to register differences between music written by the same composer at different stages of his life. And one can glean by association how the music of Monteverdi’s more conservative fellow-composers might have sounded.

I must say that, had Baroque Voices decided to proceed through the madrigals chronologically, I would have been just as enchanted, if less informed, by what I encountered. In context, even in the earlier Monteverdi pieces the music has what seems to my ears an enormous variety of expression. The present concert began with two madrigals from Book Three, works whose sounds represented for me a wonderful marriage of energy and delicacy, the contrasts of pure light and oscillating energies in the writing producing a totally enchanting effect throughout.

The second madrigal, “O come è gran martire” had its stratospheric opening marred by a banging door, but the singers continued undeterred, the music expanding like the light of dawn as the men’s voices joined the women’s at “O soave mio adore”. Pepe Becker’s and Jayne Tankersley’s soprano voices were able to spin their lines in thirds over vistas of great enchantment, to breathtaking effect.

True, the instrumental opening of the first of the Book Seven madrigals which followed immediately threw a startlingly-focused interval of a second at us, its instantaneous resolution heightening the passionate marriage of beauty with tension in a way that the earlier madrigals don’t often explore. This madrigal Romanesca for two soprano voices allowed us to savor the differences between two exceptional singers – Pepe Becker’s voice here sounding to my ears richer and mellower, and Jayne Tankersley’s sharper, more pungent and flavoursome.

Together the voices set one another off beautifully – both singers used the music’s figurations compellingly, their bodies expressing by movement and expression the agitations/excitements/ecstasies suggested by the heartfelt (anonymous) text. I especially liked the way the singers would push their voices past the “beautiful singing” threshold and into a world of expression that occasionally touched raw nerves but in doing so reached those intensities required by both poet and composer in each madrigal.

Monteverdi’s theatrical sense was never far away from these settings, the singers here relishing such interactions, as in Book 7’s Al lume dell stelle (mistakenly listed as from Book 3 in the program), where the men (tenor and bass) begin their invocation to the stars, the lines resembling tendrils of light floating upwards and falling back in a kind of spent ecstasy. Tenor Oliver Sewell and bass David Morriss together brought a fine, surging passion to “O celesti facelle…”, while in reply the two sopranos made something equally tremulous out of “Luci care e serene…” And there were stunning harmonic juxtapositionings with seconds grinding and being resolved to thirds, squeezing every drop of angst and sweet release from the situation.

In the beautiful Se per estremo, the alto voice of Andrea Cochrane led off, firm, sonorous and lovely – with the two tenors the middle voices were able to conjure up wondrous harmonic colorations throughout, the tenors, Oliver Sewell and Jeffrey Chang, essaying some finely-nuanced work in thirds, and judiciously pouring their tones into those ambient harmonies to beguiling effect. What a contrast with the vigorous and impassioned utterances of the following Tornate, the two tenors accompanied by Robert Oliver’s ever-reliable bass viol and Stephen Pickett’s perky chitarrino (renaissance guitar), and with the long-breathed sighings of “Voi de quel dolce” interrupted by hot-blooded exhortations – marvellous!

The evening was further enhanced by the spoken contribution of David Groves, responsible for the English translations of these madrigals, who made an appearance in each half of the concert. He explained briefly the context of the poetry (by Tasso) concerning the enchantress Armida, and her would-be-lover Rinaldo, who has abandoned her. One didn’t really have to understand Italian to catch the reader’s impassioned range of expression, and glean the depth and breadth of emotion in the poetry. So, each of a group of three madrigals had their texts read, and then sung by the Voices. The results were astonishing, especially in the first two of the three pieces. The singers vividly evoked the enchantress’s fury and despair at her abandonment – some of the lines stung and burnt with astonishing candor – and the dying fall of the music at “Hor qui manco lo spirto a la dolente” was almost Wagnerian in its impact.

In the third of these, Poi ch’ella (When she came to herself), both soprano voices sounded, I thought, a bit strained (not surprisingly, considering what and how they had sung throughout the first half of the concert) – this was music of resignation, though again impassioned at the end as Armida bemoans her abandonment. The alto and tenors kept the middle lines alive, and the sopranos overcame their vocal discomfiture to manage the final cadence convincingly.

As with the other concerts in the series there were in the programme so many delights to be had that it would take as long as the concert took to both mention and read about all of them! My notes contain exclamations written at the time such as “excellent teamwork between the two sopranos….making something amazingly expressive out of the final line” for the Book 7 O come sei gentile (How gracious you are), and in the following Book 3 Chi’o non t’ami (That I might not love you), “Hymn-like, beautifully modulated…..alto and tenor 2 beautifully amalgamate their tones at “Come poss’io lasciarti e non morire”…..”.

David Groves returned to read us the poems (again by Tasso) describing the anguish of Tancredi, who has killed his disguised lover, Clorinda, in armed combat, and looks for her body in the darkness. (Monteverdi also set an account of the battle between the two, in the “Combattimento” , found in Book 8 of the madrigals.) My overriding on-the-spot comment regarding the performance of the trio of settings was that “the intensity simply keeps coming in waves from all of the singers”. Despite Pepe Becker obviously having some kind of cough, she was still able to deliver those astonishing stratospheric notes needed for “Ma dove o lasso?”, a sombre processional of growing grief, culminating in the cries of “Ahi, sfortunato!…” Certainly no-one would have felt emotionally short-changed in any way in the face of such knife-edged feeling throughout these performances.

One of my favorites from the many splendid things we heard throughout the concert’s second half was the Book 7 Ecco vicine, sung by the soprano 2, Jayne Tankersley and alto Andrea Cochrane. The playing of the continuo, especially Robert Oliver’s bass viol, beautifully underpinned this Book 7 madrigal’s somewhat hyper-expressive outpourings. The words, so important for the composer throughout his entire oeuvre, exotically describe the “beloved” as a “fair Tigress”, and entertain the conceit that wherever the beloved goes, through all kinds of different geographies and under foreign skies, the lover will follow her, with a “lover’s heart”.

Monteverdi boldly renders these words and ideas in his music, great urgency at “Fuggimi pur con sempiterno orrore”, and lovely, spare, al fresco writing about the valleys, rocks, and mountains where the beloved’s footprints are found – lots of air and space in the textures.Then comes music of great and certain devotion: “Ch’andrei la dove spire e dove passi…..bacciando l’aria e adorando i passi……” Wonderful performances by all of such characterful music!

Very great credit to Baroque Voices and their intrepid instrumentalists! We were an extremely appreciative audience on this occasion, but not a large one – whatever it takes to get more people interested in the splendors of this music and its performance here in Wellington, needs to be done before the next of these concerts (the date for “The Full Monte 4” is yet to be finalized). The music is searingly beautiful, the accompanying emotions and responses are eminently accessible, and the performances are often spellbinding. What more could one ask for?

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