Monteverdi again – at last! – The Fifth Book of Madrigals, from Baroque Voices

Baroque Voices presents:
“The Full Monte “ (Concert 5)

MONTEVERDI – “Il Quinto Libro de Madrigali” (The Fifth Book of Madrigals)

Baroque Voices:
Pepe Becker (director), Nicola Holt (sopranos)
Milla Dickens, Toby Gee (altos)
Peter Dyne, Patrick Pond (tenors)
David Morriss (bass)

Robert Oliver (bass viol)
Douglas Mews (harpsichord)

Newtown Community Centre Theatre,
Newtown, Wellington

Sunday, 3rd December, 2017

Continuing with a concert series which began in 2011, Baroque Voices, led by the intrepid and perennially fresh-voiced Pepe Becker, performed for us on this occasion all but the final madrigal in Monteverdi’s “Quinto Libro” (Book Five), the last-named requiring a greater number of singers than the rest of the collection. The group has, sometimes, in these concerts, re-ordered the chronology of the works (Book Four, for example, was interspersed with accompanied madrigals from Book Seven), so as to give listeners a fuller idea of the range and variety of the composer’s invention. It could therefore be that the omitted madrigal from Book Five will suddenly “pop up” in another, fuller-voiced context in the series.

At the point of producing his Book Five of these madrigals, Monteverdi was putting revolutionary ideas into practice of a kind that earned him criticism from his contemporaries, not only as regards musical style but also content (for example, his madrigal “Cruda Amarilli”, featured on today’s programme, was condemned for its “crudities” and “licence” by a fellow-composer). He was certainly throwing down the gauntlet in front of traditional notions of propriety in vocal music by declaring that the words and their meanings had primacy, and the music took its cues from these – ‘the words the mistress of the harmony and not the servant”.

Our proximity to the singers, plus the venue’s lively and immediate acoustic, enabled us to relish all the more these characteristics some of Monteverdi’s peers found so questionable. In fact the marriage of texts and tones wrought by the Voices gave considerable pleasure to the ear throughout the concert, aided, of course, by access to the actual words via a splendidly-annotated and informative programme booklet. We could thus appreciate all the more the group’s explorations of shade upon shade of expression in places like the opening madrigal’s lament “amaramente insegni”(love’s bitterness) and towards the end of the piece, the resigned“I mi moro tacendo” (I shall die in silence”), the intensities obviously “too close for comfort” for certain of the composer’s fellows.

Amazingly, the last of the “Full Monte” presentations by Baroque voices took place no less than four years ago, giving the present concert something of a “prodigal child” aspect, an entity wandering in some kind of wilderness before finally returning home. Over such a period of time things obviously change and people come and go, to the point here where the group’s leader, Pepe Becker, was the only “voice” common to both occasions. Happily, the group’s overall standards of ensemble, intonation and stylistic awareness seemed as well-suited to the repertoire as ever – and I thought in fact, there was a freshness about the approach which suggested some kind of renewal of energies and purpose regarding the project as a whole.

As with the other concerts in this series, the musical riches were too many and varied to document in detail, requiring more of a thesis than a review to do so. I‘ve thus contented myself with relishing the effect of the whole and pinpointing a few particular moments which have stayed in the memory for reasons of impact and resonance. I should at this stage mention the sterling support given the singers by the continuo players, Robert Oliver (bass viol) and Douglas Mews (harpsichord), their playing exquisitely underlining the felicities of the singers’ realisations throughout.

Leading from the front, Pepe Becker’s voice seemed to me in particularly fine fettle, as pure, focused and flexible of tone as ever, able to “float” her lines with as much freedom as I previously remembered. She was well-partnered by fellow-soprano Nicola Holt, their combination producing ecstatic moments throughout the concert – for instance, some amazingly stratospheric singing from the sopranos at the opening of No. 5, “Dorinda, ah, diro….”, the rest finely-chiselled evocations of despair from all voices leading towards bitter resignation at “Sarai con la mia morte” (You shall be mine as I die).

These beautifully-gradated and –realised expressions of acceptance within grief linked the work to the following madrigal, “Ecco piegando” (Here am I…”), though startling with its plea to the lover to “wound this heart that was so cruel to you” (“ferisci questo cor che ti fu crudo”). Already, there was plenty of drama and depth of feeling generated by the opening of the third madrigal“Era l’anima mia” with its sombre depictions from the men’s voices of a soul on the point of farewelling life! And what theatricality at the point when the women’s voices brought “a fairer and more graceful soul” to bear on the scenario, the light illuminating the textures and leading towards that extraordinary extended treatment of the madrigal’s last line “Se mori, ohime, non mori tu, mor’ io? “ (If you die, it is, alas, not you who dies, but I).

Further resisting the temptation to construct a self-indulgent compendium of further on-going delights, I’ll instead concentrate on the performance of the final trio of madrigals, each of which highlighted particular singers’ qualities as well as presenting the group in a true and favourable sense. No.16, “Amor se giusto sei” (Love, if you are just) is a plea to Love itself to be “just”, in making the poet’s beloved properly appreciative of his feelings for her, rather than contemptuous and scornful. It was a chance for both tenor and bass to figure with significant solo passages, each taking his turn to floridly and impassionedly voice his sorrow and frustration at his beloved’s indifference to his protestations. Here, surely were the seeds of the new “operatic” manner about to take music by storm given some of their first expressions in these works; and each of the singers here relished the opportunity to “emote” in an engaging and theatrical manner.

The following “T’amo mia vita” (I love you, my life!) featured the men replying to the soprano’s opening statement, caressing the idea of “in questa sola si soave parola” (this single, gentle word”, expressing emotion with the utmost delight, and, later  declaring “prendila tosto Amore” (seize love quickly). The ensemble skillfully caught the music’s ebb and flow between impulsive energy and rapturous languidity, conveying to us a sensual enjoyment of the lines wholly characteristic of the composer’s output.

Concluding the concert was the last but one Madrigal from the Fifth Book, “E cosi a poco a poco” (And thus, little by little”), the ensemble detailed and demonstrative at the beginning with the two sopranos especially vibrant, preparing the way for the men’s declamatory “Che spegne antico incendio” (Whoever quenches an ancient fire”), the subsequent exchanges and interactions more declamatory and conversational than melodic, the operatic spirit again spreading its wings ready to take flight. A repetition of “Che spegne antico incendio” featured the whole group, and built most satisfyingly to a resounding conclusion.

Though audience numbers were disappointingly few, the concert’s glorious sounds resounded with as much splendour as if we had been in St Mark’s in Venice. One hopes that Pepe Becker and her Voices will get sufficient support to continue their journey, helping to bring this music and its composer to a rightful place in the endlessly detailed musical tapestry of music for the ages. How wonderful to have in Wellington musicians, singers and instrumentalists, of the calibre to be able to do this incredible music justice!






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