Monteverdi: Madrigals, vol. 1 Cremona

Les Arts Florissants, Paul Agnew
Éditions Les Arts Florissants AF005
Madrigals from Books 1-3

This is the second of three CDs that will survey Monteverdi’s non-dramatic secular music. The lavish presentation (a trademark of Les Arts Florissants) includes a booklet that runs to almost 80 pages; on closer inspection, more than 20 of those are taken up by translations into English and French of nine works from Book 1 (published when the composer was all of 19 years old!), six each from Books 2 and 3, and a further 20 by publicity shots of the group, biographies of the ensemble’s leading lights and a discography. I must confess that the various combinations of singers (only soprano Hannah Morrison and tenors Paul Agnew and Sean Clayton sing in all three books) were up against two wonderful groups, whose Monteverdi madrigals recordings are legendary: the Consort of Musicke (of which Agnew was, of course, a member) and Concerto Italiano.

I was pretty much drawn into that whole world by the former’s performances with their flawless tuning and attention to detail (in both words and music), and yet they were left miles behind by the latter’s dramatic renditions – the result, I fear, of all being native speakers and willing to take more risks with Monteverdi’s lines. The present performances, which sound as if they were recorded in a small space with minimal reverb, are somewhere in the middle – for me, any “interpretation” seems to stem from a need to inject some drama rather than it actually growing out of the music, perhaps even a little caricatured. That, of course, is not to say that others will not love these renditions; I will stick with Alessandrini and co. for now, though.

Brian Clark