Concerto Italiano, Rinaldo Alessandrini
132:39 (2 CDs)
Naïve OP 7365
Concerto Italiano’s extremely steady progress through the Monteverdi madrigals – some of the earlier releases go back to the 1990s! – reaches its penultimate issue with Book 7, first published in Venice in 1619. Dedicated to Caterina de’ Medici, Duchess of Mantua and Montferrat its 29 items represent a complete break with the traditional integrated madrigal book, the composer giving us prior notice to expect something different by heading the collection ‘Concerto’ . Here we find an extraordinary range and variety ranging from long recitative solos in the stile rapresentativo (‘Se i languidi’, the famous love letter, here extremely well communicated by Monica Piccinini, a long-standing Italianist, , and ‘Se pur destina’, the lover’s parting), to madrigals in the old polyphonic style through to extended theatrical works like the ballo ‘Tirsi e Clori’and, perhaps most importantly of all, duets, including the unforgettably toe-tapping ‘Chiome d’oro’, here sung by two sopranos rather than the expected disposition of two tenors.
Anyone familiar with Alessandrini’s progress through the madrigal books will know that despite inevitable changes of personnel over the years, it has remained remarkably consistent both as to ambition and achievement, attaining high levels of performance throughout. This is no different. The bar is immediately set high by tenor Valerio Contaldo, an outstanding Ulisse in the recent ground-breaking Versailles Il ritorno d’Ulisse, with the introductory ‘Tempro la cetra’, an ever-increasingly virtuoso number with ritornelli, the ornamentation superbly articulated by the singer, whose diction is also exemplary. Here, too, though we find one of the few grounds for complaint in these performances. It’s the familiar one of over-elaborate plucked continuo, the constant arpeggiations adding an unwanted gloss. And while in moaning mood, let’s add violin playing in those numbers that call for bowed strings that continues to adhere to an all-purpose Baroque style rather than 17th-century bowing and set up. But in context these are relatively minor points and for the rest it really is nothing but praise. The works for two tenors seem to perhaps dominate the book. Contaldo and his colleague Raffaele Giordani, who is entrusted with the lamentations of the departing lover mentioned above, combine beautifully, especially in duets like ‘Interrotte speranze’ and ‘Ah, che non si conviene’, fascinating for their fundamentally harmonized rather than contrapuntal writing. Among more ostensibly traditional pieces the tortuous rising chromatic figure that dominates the four-part (SATB) ‘Tu dormi, ah crudo core’ brings with it a foretaste of the pleading of Seneca’s followers in L’incoronazione di Poppea.
To detail all the wonders of Book 7 would be too exhaustive and exhausting in a review of this nature. Suffice it to say Monteverdi here carries his revolution, his daring evolution of the madrigal to new levels. The key is the expression of extreme emotions by the employment of expressive mannerism that remarkably manages to remain just about under control. Overall it would be difficult to envisage performances that capture and convey this essence to a more telling, a more convincing level than these of Alessandrini.