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Splendor of Monteverdi – Urthona Journal of Buddhism & the Arts Buddhism

Preview of issue 35: Ratnagarbha on current Monteverdi publications

Claudio Monteverdi was Maestro di Cappella In Markus Venice for almost three decades, but in the midst of composing sacred music for the basilica, he still found time to write many operas (most of which were unfortunately lost to posterity) and no less than nine books with madrigals. Recordings of this productive edition are published regularly these days, and there is an enormous range of techniques and approaches, many of which are of extremely high quality. We really are in a golden age for lovers of Renaissance music.

My top recommendation this month is Anamorfosi – Allegri & Monteverdi fromLe Poème Harmonique directed by Vincent Dumestre (Alpha – Cat. ALPHA438). Le Poème Harmonique is based in France and has made a name for itself with old passion and finesse. For this recording, they have paired two very well-known names from this period and several lesser known or anonymous composers. The connecting thread is that of anamorphosis, which indicates changing meanings and perspectives. This is immediately reflected in the opening traces of the Miserere. Because that is not Gregorio Allegri in its original form. After Mozart’s strict setting of Psalm 50 had been transcribed, he was rewritten and embellished layer by layer, often using expressive dissonances. This disc gives us a tour of these musical layers. The quality of the performance is simply stunning – deeply passionate, but also of great purity, and the extremes of expressive ornaments are fully and amazingly brought to bear. The songs by Monteverdi and others are similarly powerful, with a deeply sonorous and lively instrumental accompaniment. The sleeve notes, which are unfortunately not available with streaming, are useful here to understand the changing meanings and transmissions from sacred to secular contexts encoded in these songs. This is a studio recording and the sound is tightly microphoned and clean. The planned cross relationships and ornaments appear immediately and finely etched. Highly recommended.

Montiverdi’s unsurpassed madrigal collections are about as far from the “fa’la’la spring” that it is a spring song of the school choir days, as you can imagine. They require a high level of craftsmanship to give body and life to their very subtle harmonies and constant changes in emotional tone and voice. Often it is about suffering – rejected love, lost love, depicted with amazingly bold chromatic shifts and dissonances. The budget label Naxos has undertaken the courageous project to record all nine books by Monteverdi’s madrigals with the Italian ensemble Delitae Musicae and finally reached the ninth book last year: Monteverdi Madgrigals Book Nine, Scherzi Musical, Delitae Musicae and Marco Longhini (Naxos 2019)

The disc begins with a sonorous and meditative instrumental symphony by Biagio Marini to create the atmosphere. We then move on to the Book Nine songs. The ensemble consists of six male voices, with the countertenor part by Alessandro Carmignani being emphasized particularly and most pleasantly. He engages in lively dialogue with other voices, and Loghini’s direction reveals the dramatic counterpoint of Monteverdi’s score – we are reminded that he was a pioneer of operatic art. The vocals may be more expressive than technically perfect, but the instrumental playing is flawless. From time to time two violins appear, and the continuo, divided into harpsichord, organ, theorbo and baroque guitar, provides variety. Longhini’s direction focuses on the rhythmic vivacity and clarity of the polyphonic imitation, resulting in an entertaining, somewhat playful set.

If you are not a big fan of the counter tenor sound, I can recommend another disc Monteverdi: Lettera Amorosa (Outside 2018). Here the rich soprano by Mariana Flores brings a delicate sweetness and purity to a selection of madrigals and a few opera arias. Although all of these are solo pieces, you never tire of her expressive voice. It has again combined the quality of the austerity measures with passion that seems so appropriate for the Venetian master. Here, too, the muted instrumental accompaniment offers the domed vocals a moving, rich and darkly expressive backdrop.

Well, I am not really the person who recommends operas so that Vespers are left over, oh well, Vespers, its many versions, many printed manuscripts, not to mention the myriad approaches to the performance. This is sacred Christian music in its most daring and passionate form, as far as one can expect from strict, simple or Protestant piety. The various vespers are worth a continued and deepening acquaintance, but I can recommend anything that improves the great performance of 1986 by John Eliot Gardiner and the English baroque soloists the Vespro Della Beata Virgini (Deutsche Grammophon) (also known as Vesper from 1610 to distinguish this version from those from 1640 and 1651)? Maybe. The last shot of La Tempête and Simon-Pierre Bestion (Alpha Classics ALPHA 552) is very idiosyncratic and seems to do everything possible to break the form and be very French, with a lot of vibrato and dots that might be reminiscent of Berlioz. Not for the faint of heart … try using instead Palatino concert (Atma Classique 2003) with the Ensemble Tragicomedia, also the 2011 version of Concerto Palatino and Ensemble Concerto (Dynamic 2011). These are both very spirited, very Italian performances with considerable panache and dynamism, which seem to fit the soul of Monteverdi’s bold revision of the old liturgy.

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