Tuesday 26 August 2014

The Madrigal Transformed

The Monteverdi String Band at the Echi Lontani
The Monteverdi String Band at the Echi Lontani
The development of the Italian Madrigal in the 16th century took place at a time of great artistic ferment when artists of all kinds were making discoveries. Old classical texts were re-examined, re-translated and re-discovered, whole continents were being discovered and a new way of looking at the world. Music was no different and there was a lot of philosophical discussion about the role of words and music. 'Writers like Vincenzo Galilei (father of the famously persecuted astronomer, Galileo) espoused the increasingly common view that the words should be served by the music - "prima la parola" – and that composers should use whatever means at their disposal to ensure this.'

This last quotation is from Oliver Webber's programme note for a fascinating concert, The Madrigal Transformed, which Webber's group The Monteverdi String Band performed at the Echi Lontani Festival in Cagliari in Sardinia on 30 May 2014, in which the group explored the influence of ornamentation and the seconda pratica on contemporary madrigals. The performers were Oliver Webber (violin), Teresa Caudle (violin), Wendi Kelly (contralto viola), David Brooker (tenor viola) and Christopher Suckling (bass violin).

This list of performers might, at first, cause a slight jolt. If this is a programme of madrigals, where were the singers? Well, there weren't any. The 16th century had a far more flexible attitude to music than we do, and the mixing of vocal and instrumental forces was far more common than now. The style of the four or five part madrigal lent itself to performance by a consort of string instruments, and the various bowing techniques can be used to emulate the vocal effects, dynamic shapes, articulation and phrasing.

The Monteverdi String Band at the Echi Lontani
Oliver Webber and Teresa Caudle
The Monteverdi String Band at the Echi Lontani
For their programme The Madrigal Transformed the group played a sequence of works by 16th century composers in which madrigals are treated to the effects of the seconda pratica, where music is used to express the words (as opposed to the prima pratica which was basic polyphony). The composers like Monteverdi broke the rules so that the music was expressive of the text, with a quick silver variety which reflected the way the meaning of the words changed. Contemporary instrumental composers were quick to jump on the band-wagon and the Monteverdi String Band's programme also included instrumental music where composers have transformed pieces with diminutions (the practice of ornamenting by diminishing the length of notes and inserting lots more, ie music with lots of runny bits). This practice had a two-fold benefit, it enabled the performer to show off, but ideally it also had an expressive purpose here.

In performances like those of the Monteverdi String Band, such a programme was never going to be dry but to vary the diet and to illuminate things a bit more, Webber and his colleagues gave readings (in Italian) from contemporary writings, treatises and letter. There are some charming and fascinating finds. Emanuele Tesauro in his Vocabulario Italiano of 1612-54 includes a description of singer production sound which concludes with 'finally resolves it with the sweetest sigh. Doesn’t this seem to you like the description, not of a voice, but a sweet pastry?' Webber has also found a series of letters from Galileo writing from Arcetri in 1637 to Fulgenzio Micanzio in Venice about trying to buy a violin, with Micanzio informing him which were best (those from Cremona), soliciting the help of Monteverdi (whose nephew lives in Cremona) and finally, the violin is despatched!

The programme started with Monteverdi's Cruda Amarilli and Cipriano de Rore's A la dolc'ombra, interspersed with instrumental movements by Merulo and Lassus. Cipriano de Rore's madrigal was performed in an instrumental transformation by Girolamo dalla Casa which introduces cascades of diminutions. The rest of the programme follows the plan with madrigals by Monteverdi and his contemporary Gastoldi, diminutions on madrigals by older composers such as de Rore, Emilio de Cavalieri and Palestrina, plus instrumental pieces by Gastoldi, Gabrieli, Gioseffo Guami and Giovanni Merulo. The effect of the simpler, dance-based instrumental pieces is to set off nicely the rather more grand complexities of Monteverdi's madrigals and the elaborate diminutions.

Monteverdi's madrigals in the programme included Cruda Amarilli, Era l'anima mia, M'è più dolce il penar, and Lamento d'Arianna, plus there were some fascinating sequences. There was a selection of music from Monteverdi's Ballo dell'ingrate, which mixes the instrumental movements with transcriptions of the vocal ones, including the entrate, ballo and Dolente partita. We got a sequence of Gastoldi's balletti which were vocal dances, each one typifying a different type of lover, published in 1591. The final sequence is a lovely selection from Monteverdi's Orfeo with the opening toccata sounding fascinating on the strings.

The performances from the Monteverdi String Band are wonderfully vivid and vital. Technically superb, but in a highly expressive way so that you do not miss the words. The players articulate, shape and phrase in such an immediate way that the music takes wing. These are performances of great intensity, but there is charm too and a wonderful rhythmic vitality with brings the individual notes to life. Clearly this is intimate chamber music, played by with sympathy.

I listened and watched the performance thanks to the wonders of the internet. It was vividly engrossing watched this way, so experienced live it must be a great delight.

You can watch selected excerpts from the programme on the Monteverdi String Band's website and a full recording of the concert at the Global Art Village website. The group also has plans to repeat the programme in the UK next year.
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