I Fagiolini's programme for Choral at Cadogan last night (8 February) was entitled Insalate I Fagiolini and presented as a menu with different courses, but the theme wasn't food so much as to give us a taste of a variety of secular European genres which could be loosely referred to as madrigals (though we actually got madrigals, songs, a carnival masque and a salad). Composers were from the 16th century and of a variety of nationalities - Flemish, French, German, Spanish and Italian. Styles ranged from the comically skittish to the sublime madrigals of Monteverdi, with the six members of I Fagiolini slipping effortlessly between styles.
Here is Robert Hollingworth's introduction to the programme, taken from I Fagiolini's website:-
'Prepare your tastebuds for an assault on the senses through Renaissance Europe. From France, amuses-bouches both suave and Rabelasian include John Fulljames’ staging of Janequin’s celebrated ‘Le chant des oiseaux’. Cross the Pyrenees for foot-tapping tapas and an actual ‘ensalada’ (implying a mix of languages and dance steps) with strong Pythonesque overtones. Via the Mediterranean to Italy with a beautiful sweep of works including Willaert’s eulogy to a famous Venetian singer and Striggio’s ode to the ‘leopard’, Queen Elizabeth I. This aural feast ends with a selection from Monteverdi’s finest vintage: 1603 and his incomparable fourth book of madrigals.'
They opened in comic, mode with Ludwig Senfl's Das G'laut zu Speyer, an onomatopoeic description of the ringing of the bells of Speyer. Sung without music, and with movements it was a brilliant both aurally and visually. Next followed a group of French chansons. First was Clement Jannequin's Or vien ca with its suggestive, almost rude words. Sung at a brilliant speed, it was a vivid performance, mobile and communicative.
The following three chansons were all concerned with projecting the poetry of the text. In Pierre Sandrin's Puisque vivre en servitude, Dominique Phinot's Pleurez mes yeux and Claude Le Jeune's Un gentil amoureux, the music was of apparent simplicity ensuring the primacy of the text. In all three, the singers gave poetry and character to the music.
The group consisted of six singers, Anna Crookes, Clare Wilkinson, Nicholas Hurndall Smith, Eamonn Dougan, Charles Gibbs and Robert Hollingworth, who also directs. Hollingworth also provided brief spoken introductions to the groups of songs, witty and funny (with more than one debt to Monty Python) but full of useful information as well.
The group's style of performance is sophisticated, but highly characterful with the individual singers emoting vividly even in the unstaged numbers. There was no sense of a forced homogeneity, each voice was fully characterised and with a strong sense of line, making an ensemble which was vivid, but still subtle in the quieter moments.
They finished the French group with Jannequin's outrageous Le chant des oyseaulx, ostensibly about bird watching with lots of imitative bird calls. It was staged, by John Fulljames, in a way which reflected the piece's undertone of examining human relationships. The result was very funny, and very well sung.
We next moved to Spain where there was a group of three hauntingly beautiful pieces, full of gentle melancholy; the anonymous Claros y frescos rios, Juan Vasquez Serrana, donde dormistes? and Mateo da Flecha's Teresica hermana. This last one, despite the rather gentle music, had some rather near the knuckle words.
The first part closed with one of Flecha's ensladas, piece which mix languages and use a wide variety of time signatures; they were intended as Christmas entertainment at the Valencian court and ended with a song to the Christ child. This was staged by Peter Wilson, and involved two audience volunteers to hilarious effect. Though the music was richer and subtler than I expected and not so vividly up tempo. The title refers to the fire of sin!
Part two opened with one of Lassus's madrigals, S'io esca vivo, a finely constructed setting of Petrarch. After it, Hollingworth read one of Lassus's letters to his employer the Duke of Bavaria, which skittered through a variety of languages in a manner which was full of unintended (presumably) hilarity.
Cypriano de Rore's Mia benigna fortuna was written at the court of Ferrara, where the most advanced music making of the time went on. The madrigal uses chromaticism to subtly characterise Petrarch's sonnet. Alessandro Striggio's graceful and richly textured D'ogni gratia et d'amor was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I, this was the fruit of Striggio's brief visit to England, a visit which included the performance of a 40 part motet which led to Tallis's follow up in that genre.
The Flemish composer Giaches de Wert worked in Mantua mainly in a conservative style, but after hearing the advanced music making at Ferrara, he underwent a conversion and his final groups of madrigals are highly coloured and chromatic. I Fagiolini sang what was in fact a motet, but one which is characterised by this same manner, Ascendente Iesu in naviculam. In it de Wert uses highly syncopated passages to bring out the instability of Christ walking on water; a rather amazing piece.
Giovanni Croce was a serious musician who worked at St Mark's in Venice. But he also ran what might be termed a close harmony group providing lighter entertainment at evening events in palazzos. His Il gioco dell'occa is one such piece, a setting of The Game of the Goose, a common board game not unlike snakes and ladders. The piece dramatises an entire game and the group did just that, complete with a real board game. Again, hilarity and musicianship went hand in hand, creating a brilliant piece of entertainment for the eyes and ears.
Finally, a change of mood completely, four of Monteverdi's five-part madrigals all taken from Monteverdi's fourth book of madrigals published in 1603; Sfogava con le stelle, Volgea l'anima mia soavamente, Longe da te, cor mio and Anima mia perdone. All four dealt with love and loss, a sense of melancholy pervading all of them. Performances were full of subtlety but still highly characterised, the singers brought the emotions of Monteverdi's settings to the fore without ever compromising the music. To say that these performances were simply beautiful is wrong, because there was an intense complexity to the performance.
The enthusiastic audience was allowed to choose the encore (cue much mugging from the singers), and we had a lovely Spanish lullabye notated in 5/4 time.
I Fagiolini's chosen repertoire is not always as approachably sexy as some early music repertoire, but they combine superb musicianship with a highly evocative performance style and a great sense of fun. The result is intelligent entertainment.
Elsewhere on this blog:
- Getting it Right 2013 - conference report
- Love Abide - Roxanna Panufnik - CD review
- Drama Queens - Joyce DiDonato at Barbican Hall
- Shakespeare Songs - Nicky Spence - CD review
- Great sets, shame about the opera - Montemezzi's Nave
- Alex Esposito at Rosenblatt Recitals
- La Traviata - Peter Konwitschny - ENO
- Well-Tempered Clavier volume 1
- Review: Londinium - Britten in America