Monteverdi: Madrigals Book 8 ‘Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi”

Delitiæ Musicæ, Marco Longhini
221:41 (4 CDs in a crystal box)
Naxos 8.573755-58 (Recorded 2005)

This lavish release, presumably timed to mark Monteverdi 450, includes the complete Book 8 Madrigals as well as other interpolated music. I went first to the very familiar Combattimento de Tancredi e Clorinda, hoping to gauge the general approach with a work which I know extremely well and I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, the opening music I heard wasn’t by Monteverdi at all but by Biagio Marini, a Sinfonia  which Longhini had interpolated. This was an indication of the radical approach taken to the music here, an impression soon born out by a male alto Clorinda and dramatic changes in tempo. I have to say that I was pretty well convinced by all of this, while Marco Scavazza’s account of the testo part complete with blizzards of ornaments and a stunning ‘patter’ section swept all before it. Longhini employs a veritable army of thirty musicians for these CDs, providing a wonderful choice of textures. He has a complete consort of viols as well as a quartet of Baroque strings to choose between, while his continuo instruments include harpsichords, organs, theorbo, lirone, harp, guitar and trombone. This allows him to vary the accompanying textures in a work such as the Combattimento  in a way which we know Monteverdi favoured in his operas. The result is a much more operatic and suitably epic account of the work than I have ever heard before. I found Clorinda’s falsetto representation trickier to take seriously. The account of the Ballo delle Ingrate is on an equally epic scale, and preceded by some excellent tamburi discordati and another Sinfonia  by Marini – it is entirely plausible that Monteverdi intended these works to be introduced by sinfonias in this way, either composed by himself or by a contemporary composer. The part of Cupid is taken appropriately by an excellent boy soprano Beniamino Borciani, although I found that the falsetto account of Venus grated. Notwithstanding, this expansive account of these proto-operas brings them firmly into the orbit of the great operatic masterpieces, and I found the approach utterly convincing. Elsewhere the madrigals for eight-part voices and instruments were wonderfully expressive and atmospheric, although I found the recorded sound made the louder sections rather too immediate and competitive. The use of all male voices worked very well, although surely there is ample evidence that the upper lines (like the part of Clorinda) would have been taken by women. This is an ambitious project, and while I have not always been entirely convinced by Marco Longhini’s previous engagements with the music of Monteverdi, I have to say I found these CDs stimulating and for the most part very convincing. To be able to buy the complete Book 8 Madrigals on four budget CDs is remarkable enough, and while these performances have their quirky aspects they are generally an excellent investment.

D. James Ross