Madrigal History Tour

The King’s Singers : The Consort of Musick
105:00 (2 DVDs)
Arthaus Musik 109123

This double DVD set is something of a blast from the past. Deriving from a BBC arts documentary series made in 1984, it does what it says on the tin, taking us on a comprehensive and engaging tour of the history of the madrigal as it spread throughout Europe. The King’s Singers in their mid-eighties manifestation are musically at the top of their game, and the members also reveal their latent talents as presenters, at which they are singularly adept. The account of the madrigal’s development is liberally interspersed with musical examples sung by the Singers, and played, sung (and acted) by The Consort of Musicke, whose director, a youthful Anthony Rooley, also contributes to the discussion. The scholarship is thorough though not overwhelming, and its generalised nature means that little of it has been superseded, while the performances are generally good if not quite up to 21st-century standards. On my copy the sound quality tended to shrink away in quiet passages, to return when the volume revived, but the recorded sound is generally good.

The visuals by contrast have dated badly. A generally sepia tone pervades all the location filming, which is otherwise informative and atmospheric, while the Singers themselves are captured in embarrassing sixties rock-star leather jackets – ironically the Consort of Musicke’s more traditional suits have better stood the test of time! Overlooking such gratingly dated aspects, this is an engaging and informative programme of the sort which the BBC excelled at, and there is a wealth of vocal music to enjoy here, most of it expertly contextualised and explained: around twenty minutes into the first DVD there is a note-by-note explanation of the Petrarchan madrigal Valle, che de’lamenti miei by Giaches de Wert – first the poem is read and then as the Singers perform it, we see on a moving score what is happening while a voice-over explains how the music is complementing the text. On my copy, and I fear on every other, there is a passage towards the end of the madrigal where a tape malfunction leads to an alarming pitch wobble under one of the spoken explanations – I can’t imagine this was allowed to pass in the original programme so must be a mistake in the transfer process. However, this is a minor blip in a worthwhile project.

D. James Ross