Discovering Monteverdi's Madrigals All Over Again

Amir Mandel
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Paul Agnew.
Paul Agnew.Credit: Pascal Gely
Amir Mandel

My first encounters with the madrigals of the Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) left a distinctively flavorful memory of bold vocal hues and tempestuous yet refined drama arising from the interplay between text, melody and harmony. Decades of listening have somewhat dulled the magic of that initial encounter, so it’s especially pleasing to come across a performance that reawakens it. That’s exactly the effect of “Venezia” (Harmonia Mundi label) consisting of pieces from the composer’s seventh and eighth books of madrigals. They are performed by the vocal and instrumental ensemble Les Arts Florrisants, conducted by the tenor Paul Agnew, who also takes part in the singing.

The ensemble recorded a special short project – not the usual systematic rendition of the books of madrigals according to the order of their publication, but three collections of madrigals chosen with meticulous care. Each collection intermixes well-known and famous madrigals with others that are heard less often, and each album bears the name of a city that was a station in the composer’s life: Cremona, his birthplace; Mantua, where he worked as a musician for the Gonzaga family and gained initial recognition; and Venice, the third and last in the series.

It was Venice that accorded the composer the epithet “divine Claudio” and where his late style evolved. Monteverdi started to write during the Renaissance, when music strove for technical and stylistic perfection – mathematical, indeed – of multi-vocal relationships. By the time of his Venice period, a transformation had occurred: the Baroque age had begun, and music aimed primarily to generate feelings, to foment and express drama. Monteverdi not only reflected this shift, he was a highly influential participant in the process.

Musical unity and sweeping drama

Following an instrumental opening, “Venezia” offers six madrigals from the seventh book and four from the eighth. One of them, “The Combat of Tancredi and Clorinda,” which is not so much a madrigal as a brief drama in music, is one of the album’s big surprises. It’s rather loose, structurally and stylistically, and I’d always thought that Monteverdi had tried something here that wasn’t entirely successful. But on this album, Paul Agnew, soprano Hannah Morrison and tenor Sean Clayton deliver an intensive, concentrated performance of the piece. The sparkling voices, backed by spectacularly colorful instrumental accompaniment, succeed in fusing musical unity and beauty with sweeping drama.

But it’s not only the “Combat”; the whole album is a surprise package, including even the best-known madrigals, which already have superb performances. The renditions by Les Arts Florissants are riveting. Even if they do not display radical innovativeness or a striking departure from the accepted approach to Monteverdi, they are fresh and at times evoke that wonderful feeling of an unadulterated encounter with the composer, as though I were listening to the works for the first time.

According to Agnew, the intensive quality of the performances derives from the fact that the recordings are from live concerts. Perhaps, and perhaps the album also benefits from the courageous decision to record only a selection, and a small one at that, of the madrigals, and not get bogged down in a routine of recording number after number. In any event, among the many recordings that are being released to mark the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth, in my view this collection of madrigals will be one of the outstanding achievements.