Les Arts Florissants, Paul Agnew
Les Arts Florissants HAF 8905278
In the past couple of years I’ve twice experienced – the right word in this case, I think – the vocal ensemble from Les Arts Florissants performing selections of Monteverdi madrigals at the Ambronay Festival, the review of the 2015 concert being on this website. Remarkable above all for their sheer intensity and compelling commitment, I would count these among the very finest musical events I’ve attended in recent years. The Ambronay concerts were a spin-off from a complete cycle of the madrigals given in Paris, where a selection was recorded for release across three CDs. It can only be regretted that the whole cycle was not recorded, but we must be eternally grateful for what we do have.
This final volume is devoted to extracts from the culmination of Monteverdi’s path-breaking madrigal output. Nowhere of course does that description apply more than in these last books, Seven and Eight, the latter bearing the title Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi, published respectively in 1619 and 1638. In both, but above all in Book 8, we find Monteverdi breaking through any boundaries still remaining after the radical developments initially introduced in Book 4. Thus from Book 7 we have ‘Con che soavità’ and the famous ‘Lettera amorosa’, both solos rather than concerted madrigals, the first sung by Miriam Allan with perfect technique – gorgie are splendidly articulated – and a mesmerizing, rapt sensuality that employs messa di voce to stunning effect. The long love letter in the stile rappresentazione is equally compelling, delivered by alto Lucile Richardot with absorbed and absorbing attention, the lines sustained by beautiful tone and insightful vocal acting. There are two lighter pieces here, too, the infectious ‘Chiome d’oro’, given a deliciously light touch by Allen and Mhairi Lawson, while in the hands of Allan and Paul Agnew the irresistible Ballo: Tirsi e Clori exudes sweet pastoral charm in the early verses before the 6-part ensemble enters to carry the madrigal to an exuberant conclusion.
The madrigals of Book 8 are divided between those devoted to war and to those that concern love, the selection here starting off with the introductory ‘Altri canti d’Amor’ (Let others sing the sweet charms). The opening, sung with languorous flow, is harshly challenged by the superb bass Lisandro Abadie, his announcement that he will sing of ‘harsh encounters and daring battles’ introducing a fiercely virtuoso account of the remainder of the madrigal, in which Monteverdi employs the new concitato style. The war part of the book is in fact as much metaphor for the war of love as literal, but in the final piece the two are combined in Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, effectually a chamber opera based on an episode from Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata that here comes to compelling dramatic life. The major weight of the work falls on the narrator (Testo), sung by Agnew. If his vibrato is occasionally a problem and I have heard the role more strongly projected, there is no doubting the interpretative insight and superbly rhetorical delivery Agnew brings to the role. He is excellently supported by Hannah Morrison and Sean Clayton in the relatively minor contributions given the protagonists, the former being intensely moving in her final dying words, delivered with a heartbreaking diminuendo.
Other extracts from Book 8 include the ravishingly lovely ‘Dolcissimo usignola’ and ‘Lamento de la ninfa’, a performance by Morrison, Agnew, Clayton and Cyril Costano of touching simplicity that goes straight to the heart, the inexorable ground bass relentlessly underpinning the misery of the abandoned nymph. A marvellous, life-enhancing CD of some of the greatest music the 17th century has to offer.