Uncovering the fullness of Monteverdi – Baroque Voices

THE FULL MONTE – Concert Four

MONTEVERDI –  Madrigals Book 4 (1603) – complete

Selected Duets from Madrigals Book 7 (1619)

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

Christopher Warwick (countertenor) / Jeffrey Chang (tenor) / Simon Christie (bass)

Continuo: Jonathan Berkahn (virginals) / Robert Oliver (bass viol)

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill St., Wellington

Sunday 28th April 2013

On the face of things, this was another expertly put-together and engagingly-performed concert in Baroque Voices’ Monteverdi series, with pretty much the same underlying features as in previous concerts. But the ensemble has now reached Book Four of the composer’s nine separate madrigal collections, one which represents a crisis-point in the series.

Monteverdi was to thenceforth embark on a new path, what he called his “Seconda Pratica”, moving away from traditional unaccompanied polyphonic modes in favour of freer and bolder uses of harmony and ornamentation,including the use of continuo instruments. He announced his intentions in his written preface to the Fifth Book, published in 1605, declaring that he would make “the words the mistress of the harmony and not the servant”.

So, the music of parts of this concert represented a kind of summation of an era, given that we as listeners following the series had already been well-and-truly initiated into the new age! Thanks to the group’s alternation of madrigals from both of the stylistic eras in every concert thus far, we’ve enjoyed and already marvelled at some of the expressive possibilities of the composer’s “Second Practice”. Though this may have “muddied the waters” for those wanting clearly-defined divisions in performance, for me the presentations have, in a different sense, been enriched with the use of these contrasts in the music as renaissance turns into baroque.

In any case part of the fascination for me of having the two “practices” presented cheek-by-jowl was, as with other concerts in the series, having those “window-in-time” opportunities for registering how the younger Monteverdi was always straining at the leash of compositional convention, and occasionally (to quote Franz Liszt’s famous words) “hurling his lance into the future” with unexpected and scalp-prickling emphases and irregularities which earned him the ire of him more conventional colleagues and rivals.

There were far too many moments of sheer musical illumination to catalogue adequately during the course of this concert – of course, we have become thoroughly accustomed to, indeed spoilt by the “moments per minute” nature of the presentations thus far – and so it proved here. I shall content myself with recounting my impressions of some of the more “stand-out” realizations achieved by the group, while noting the presence of a few moments which seemed to me to be less successfully achieved than the group might have wanted.

The concert began with the first madrigal from Book Four Ah delete partita (Ah, painful departure) – a spectacular unison soprano line began the piece, subsequently cleaving into two a tone apart, creating enormous intensity which was, I thought, beautifully sculptured by the singers, though Pepe Becker’s normally secure tones seemed to me a little strained and perhaps “unwarmed”, the effort more than usually noticeable.

Pepe’s and fellow-soprano Jayne Tankersley’s very individual timbres always delight in combination, their differences illuminating the lines and, by nature, the texts. The following Book 7 madrigal, featuring both singers Non è di gentil core (No-one has a gentle heart) brought out these features, the beautiful descents at “e nel foci d’amor lieta godete” (“who revel gladly in the fire of love) and the variation of impulse at “Dunque non e di gentil core” (This proves that no-one has a gentle heart) giving the more impulsive passages a wonderful “quickened by love” aspect.

Two Book 4 settings which then followed, both texts beginning with the words “Cor mio…” served to demonstrate the composer’s inclinations towards more overt expressivity and volatility than was accepted as the norm within the framework of the “old rules”. Especially the second of these, Cor mio, non mori? (My heart, will you not die?) contrasted a charged stillness at the opening with an impulsive leap forward at “non mori?”, employing volatilities and richly-wrought harmonies hand-in-hand, seeming to look forward as readily and uncannily as our sensibilities as listeners were drawn back in time as well.

The contrasts between the two styles did tell splendidly in places, such as in Book 7’s O viva fiamma (O live flame of love) with its excitable exchanges between the sopranos – Jayne Tankersley’s expression vibrant and pulsating, Pepe Becker’s more contained and poised – and its sorrowful and pitiable conclusion at “pieta vi prenda del mio acerbo pianto” (take pity on my sorrowful lamentation). The two altos, Andrea Cochrane and counter-tenor Christopher Warwick made much of their first-half Interrotte speranze (Hopes shattered) from Book 7, conveying the intense pain of unrequited love, underpinned by some deeply-felt tones from Robert Oliver’s bass viol. I enjoyed the deep, rich vocal unisons breaking into thirds, perhaps symbolizing the text’s parting of love’s way. However, in the second half I didn’t feel that the same two singers quite nailed another Book 7 madrigal,Vorrei baciarte (I’d like to kiss you) to the same extent, the piece requiring more vocal “ring” than these two pleasing, but rather soft-grained voices could muster.

There’s a barely-concealed eroticism in a good deal of Monteverdi’s music (including parts of his Vespers for the Blessed Virgin) which here bubbled to the fore in a number of places, such as Book 4’s Si, ch’io vorrei morire (Yes, I want to die of love), put across by the ensemble with great relish. Sequences like the suggestive ascending intensities of “Ahi, car’e dolce lingua” (Ah, dear, sweet tongue) and moments such as the fully-flowering “Ahi, vita mia, a questo bianco seno” (Ah, my love, to this white breast) would possibly have earned censorship strictures at less permissive stages of human history. As for the effect, visceral or imaginative, of the repeated exclamations of “Ahi…”, either way the intention could hardly be more explicit.

Rather less evident as soloists throughout, both tenor Jeffrey Chang and bass Simon Christie made exemplary contributions to the ensemble, especially prominent in Book 4’s Voi pur di me partite (So, you really are leaving me), with its male-only middle section at “Ardo d’amor, ado d’amore!” (I burn with love – I burn!). Tenor Jeffrey Chang made a good fist of stirring the emotions in Book 4’s Anima dolorosa, with his anguished tones at “Amor spire? Che spire?”  (Love, what hopes have you?) in the midst of more dignified mourning and sorrow. And Simon Christie’s rock-steady “anchoring”of the ensembles showed impeccable judgment and sensitivity in every case, his lines coming to the fore when appropriate, as in the eloquent Book 4 Longe da te cor mio (Distant from you my dearest).

Incidentally, this madrigal occasioned the only real “glitch” of the concert, Pepe Becker stopping the singers after a few measures, and starting again, presumably to “retune”. The only other untoward things were those previously mentioned very brief instances of voices sounding insufficiently warmed when straining for high notes (both sopranos and the counter-tenor), and a couple of tiny delays due to outside aeroplane noise. The rest was unalloyed delight – and with the next concert, we will presumably get the composer’s “Seconda Pratica” in full candlepower, music’s history in its making.
















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