MONTEVERDI: Madrigali Volume 2, Mantova (Excerpts from Books IV, V, VI) – Les Arts Florissants/ Paul Agnew – Les Arts Florissant

MONTEVERDI: Madrigali Volume 2, Mantova (Excerpts from Books IV, V, VI) – Les Arts Florissants/ Paul Agnew – Les Arts Florissant Editions AF.003, 73:03 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Les Arts Florissants has begun a three-volume series devoted to the choicest selections of Monteverdi’s eight books of madrigals. The series will be thematically organized by the cities that were important in the composer’s life. We start with Volume 2 (why do companies do this?) represented by Mantova (Books IV, V and VI), and the next two years will see Cremona (April 2015 – Books I, II and III) and Venice (February 2016 – Books VII and VIII). There is a new text commissioned by Les Arts Florissants by René de Ceccatty, the renowned French writer, with a 50-page booklet on her life, and a listing of five videos offered online with information on the composer and his work, presented by Paul Agnew: “Monteverdi, a Life in Music”; “Discovering the Fourth Book”; “Discovering the Fifth Book”; “Discovering the Sixth Book”; and “Between ancient and modern…An edition of Monteverdi’s madrigals”. Unfortunately I could not get any of them to play, so I’m not sure how much of a “bonus” a non-playing public access to a website is.

Monteverdi of course is a transitional figure linking the Renaissance to the nascent Baroque, and as such represents one of the most avant-garde and innovative composers in the history of western music, with the Madrigals part of its cornerstone canon. The Madrigals appeared in sequence as below:

Book 1 (1587, when he was 19 years old) Madrigali a cinque voci
Book 2 (1590) Il secondo libro de madrigali a cinque voci
Book 3 (1592) Il terzo libro de madrigali a cinque voci
Book 4 (1603) Il quarto libro de madrigali a cinque voci
Book 5 (1605) Il quinto libro de madrigali a cinque voci
Book 6 (1614) Il sesto libro de madrigali a cinque voci
Book 7 (1619) Concerto. Settimo libro di madrigali
Book 8 (1638, now 71 years old) Madrigali guerrieri, et amorosi con alcuni opuscoli in genere rappresentativo, che saranno per brevi episodi fra i canti senza gesto.
Book 9 (1651) Madrigali e canzonette a due e tre voci

Book V marked the transition point to the Baroque, and the composer received a lot of criticism for it. By the time he got to the Eighth Book the break was complete, and Monteverdi had firmly established himself as the founder of a new type of composition. But each of the books contains musical treasures aplenty spanning the composer’s entire life. It cannot be easy to make choices from this canon, and someone somewhere will be disappointed; but it’s Paul Agnew’s party and as such, since we aren’t getting the whole enchilada, we will have to take him at his choices.

Fortunately he has included the marvelous Book VI pieces Lamento d’Arianna and Sestina, though you really can’t complain about any of his preferences. Agnew not only directs but sings also, and the group that William Christie founded remains in tip-top shape. Some people who are familiar with these works might prefer the sunnier and more emotive disposition of some Italian ensembles, but the sheer perfection of execution and vibrant tonality of these performances are hard to dismiss. The sound is not the most resonant, and in fact is a little close for my taste, the live venue of the Cite de la musique in Paris being the venue for all these performances, but clear and honest. Fine readings, and I look forward to the next releases.

—Steven Ritter

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