Marenzio: L’amoroso & Crudo stile

Rossoporpora, Walter Testolin dir
Arcana A 449

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]nce in a while – rather more rarely than some would have us believe – a truly exceptional recording comes along, a recording of such musical merit and artistic quality that it stops us in our tracks. This is such a CD. It represents a debut for the Italian vocal ensemble Rossoporpora, which has perhaps unwisely chosen to call itself by the same name as an Italian underwear firm (if you want to see what I mean, google it). For their programme they have turned to Luca Marenzio, arguably the greatest of all ‘pure’ madrigal composers.

Marenzio’s extensive output is dominated by his secular works, in particular no fewer than 18 books of madrigals for five or six voices, published in Venice between 1580 and 1599, the year of his death. A single book of four-part madrigals appeared in Rome in 1585. A dozen of these books are represented on the present CD, performed in roughly chronological order, excellent planning that allows us to follow Marenzio’s development as a composer. Such evolution is concerned more with emotional weight and substance than with significant stylistic change, for Marenzio showed little inclination to break the mould of the unaccompanied polyphonic madrigal in the manner Monteverdi would do so dramatically just a few years later. Neither, despite his contribution to the famous 1589 Florentine wedding intermedio, did Marenzio show any interest in the emergence of the revolutionary stile recitativo.

It is customary to divide Marenzio’s madrigal output into two distinctive phases. The first, characterised by an easy grace, mellifluous elegance and ‘sweetness’ was widely praised by his contemporaries both in Italy and further afield. It was what won him his reputation throughout Europe. The second, heralded by the composer himself as being composed ‘in a quite different manner from the past, tending […] towards – I shall say – a sorrowful gravity’, is the ‘crudo (cruel) stile’ of the present disc’s title. This was marked, starting with the seminal Madrigali a 4, 5 et 6 voci of 1588, by a new concentration on serious texts by the great Italian poets of the past, above all the peerless sonnets of Petrarch. This division serves as a handy reference, but is also simplistic, as the CD shows, for as well as beguiling examples of Marenzio’s earlier style such as ‘Come inanti de l’alba’, with its ravishing ethereal opening, the dissonant pain of pieces such as ‘Dolorosi martir’ (from the 5-part Madrigals, Book 1 of 1580) plumb depths of emotion as searing as do such great Petrarchan madrigals as ‘Solo e pensoso’ or ‘Crudele, acerba’.

As suggested at the outset the performances are outstanding, indeed they are near-exemplary on both technical and interpretative grounds. The seven voices of Rossoporpora, all excellent in their own right, blend beautifully in whatever combination they are employed, being superbly balanced in contrapuntal writing, while perfectly chorded in the homophonic passages with which the composer so skilfully employs contrast. The realisation of the texts, so acutely understood and set by Marenzio, is achieved with a complete understanding of both musical and literary syntax perhaps only achievable fully in this repertoire by singing in one’s native language. Neither are the performances frightened of employing tempo fluctuations to expressive means, which to my mind pays big dividends in a long text like ‘Cruda Amarilli’ (from Guarini’s Il pastor fido). But these are performances not to analyse, but rather to admire, to savour, to delight in, to share exquisite suffering in.

A couple of practical points. Two of the madrigals are performed in intabulations for two lutes, common practice at the time with popular pieces, while two others are given by solo voices and two lutes. Less successful is the addition of the two lutes to ‘Non vidi’, one of the 4vv madrigals, since they distract attention from the vocal polyphony. The loss of a star from ‘overall presentation’ is accounted for by booklet text of a size that would severely test the eyes of even an owl. But there can be no doubting that this is now unquestionably the finest available recording of a selection of Marenzio madrigals. It is, in a single word, magnificent.

Brian Robins

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