Claudio MONTEVERDI—Daylight: Stories of Songs, Dances, and Loves—Concerto Italiano, dir. RInaldo Alessandrini—Naïve OP 7366—1 hour 2 minutes—*****:
Some years ago, Rinaldo Alessandrini and his singers became well known for their performance of Monteverdi’s madrigals. While there have been other recordings in their wake, it may be somewhat surprising that the interest in one of the baroque era’s earliest composers, the creator of the so-called second practice, has remained in the public interest for this long. Alessandrini has also recorded the composer’s most well-known work, the early opera L’Orfeo(which I enjoyed!). This may explain Monteverdi’s continued interest by modern audiences: while not the first composer of opera, he helped establish a style that helped codify a new style of music. His writing also included the favorite Vespers and his ultimate collection of religious music, Selva Morale e Spirituale.
This disc then isn’t in the same vein as some of Concerto Italiano’s earlier recordings of a complete set of something; instead, we can approach this disc as old friends re-visiting old repertoire in a concert setting. In fact, Alessandrini writes of the program’s genesis in a series of concerts the ensemble gave before the COVID-19 pandemic. In all, the set spans a long term of Monteverdi’s career, nearly 60 years between the earliest and latest pieces. The love-themed texts chosen by Alessandrini are broken up with instrumental pieces by the likes of Biagio Marini and Andrea Falconieri. For sure, the instrumental forces are small and light, necessary as part of the basso continuo in a number of Monteverdi’s vocal numbers.
For those without a degree in musicology, the baroque era can be defined by a number of stylistic aspects which are somewhat different than the Renaissance that preceded it and the galant and classical age that followed. These signposts are of course somewhat artificial. But the composers in Italy in the late 1590s began to play with a vocal style that was aligned with humanist thought, and with that, the role rhetoric played in life. The music, according to the doctrine that emerged, was designed to support the meaning of text in ways that before was likely ignored. The purpose of music, then, became rhetorical, and the job of a performer was to move their audience. While this may seem common sensical, consider perhaps an earlier belief that the performance of music, and the harmony it produced, was done only to elevate the word, and perhaps mood of, God. While God did not take a back seat in baroque society, the music changed to focus on human emotions in ways that they had not before.
At the same time, the harmonic language around major and minor modes was being codified and so techniques to reinforce this harmonic language became necessary. Probably the most apt comparison might be the harmony-rich writing of a Bach four-voiced chorale. This texture allowed no ambiguity in harmony. However in Monteverdi’s famous Lamento d’Arianna, the texture was a single voice with a harmonic support. Thus the concept of a continuous bass, or basso continuo emerged; no matter how thin or complex the writing might be with voices or voices and instruments, this foundation anchored our ears to the harmonic language and instruments such as lutes, harpsichords, and organs would “fill” this harmony based on the rules of a figured bass: a number system that told the player what notes to play above the written bass note.
For all of these stylistic structures to come together through one composer, and by extension, the music on this recording, is rather extraordinary. While music from the beginning of the baroque to the late examples by Vivaldi, Telemann, and Bach differ, the most extraordinary story of the period is how the foundation in rhetorical vocal music made a transition to the instrumental works, likely Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin becoming the most extreme example. With a single violin, Bach set out to emulate the same rhetorical richness from, say, two voices with basso continuo writ by Monteverdi.
We can see and hear this new style in Chiome d’oro bel tesorofrom Monteverdi’s seventh book of madrigals, the first book I believe that included an instrumental line. This was Monteverdi’s fusion of instruments to support the vocal music; the continuous bass serves as perhaps drums and a bass line work in a contemporary pop song. The same style conveys to the duet Alle danze, alle gioiefrom the ninth book. Also of note in this piece is Monteverdi’s use of repeated notes. We get the treatment both in the bass line and also in the sung parts; Monteverdi referred to this as the stilo concitato, which is among the easiest of the rhetorical figures for us to recognize today. For Monteverdi this repetition was a mechanism to convey warlike and aggressive gestures. The music however does not speak of war or battle; it speaks of dancing, to joy and delight; to inflaming one’s heart with love. This rhetorical figure matched with the text would speak to one’s heightened pulse during sexual arousal. In fact, matching rhetorical musical devices with text can be a lot of fun with Monteverdi’s music. In Chiome d’oro’s ending, the discussion of “O sweet departure from this life,” and “so welcome wounds” speaks of the sexual act as death, which isn’t uncommon from the poetry of the time.
To be sure, one of Monteverdi’s collections is entitled Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi, juxtaposing war and love in the same set. This later set from Monteverdi included instrumental music to amplify the pieces to miniature dramas. The penultimate track includes music from this collection, including instrumental numbers from his earlier opera, L’Orfeo. The text from the last track is a great way to summarize the recording and of Monteverdi’s legacy:
*May the bold dances and the harmony of the songs, now with vigorous, now gentle accents, in the midst of endless kisses and glances, enliven the moments dedicated to Venus… *
If ever someone was going to program a best-of collection by Monteverdi, especially around music that was themed around love and love making, none I imagine could compete with this effort. While some of the earlier recordings of works by Monteverdi were undertaken by English ensembles (in Italian), some critics spoke to the flavor of Alessandrini’s early recordings as more intensely flavored, on account, if I recall, due to his performances by native Italian singers. There are, to be sure, contemporary music styles sometimes identifiable by region in the early music scene and while there have been efforts to expand upon Alessandrini’s early style, this recording is refreshing for different reasons. One of my favorite duets by Monteverdi is scored for two tenors, Zefiro torna, or the spring winds are coming. Over a repetitive ground bass, a common dance progression, Monteverdi weaves the two voices in wind-like fashion through each stanza of the poetry. This track epitomizes for me a relaxation, if not relaxed confidence Concerto Italiano applies to the repertoire. It’s audible even in their fourteenth track, from another one of Monteverdi’s operas, L’incoronazione di Poppea. In that duet, especially, lingering on the colored note, or hanging on the ornamentation at the end of a phrase, is very refreshing. It’s as if they are taking their time to enjoy the music. I may be wrong, but this confidence may speak to Alessandrini’s long association with the repertoire.
The sound quality on this recording is excellent; the voices are up front, front of stage, we might think, and the diction and dynamic contrast from the singers is well-captured. The reverberation that’s excited by some of the instrumental pieces that feature flutes or tambourine (!) is attractive. The instrumental forces contribute with strong rhythmic pulse and their placement in combination with the voices help establish them as the backup band, which is entirely appropriate.
Be warned, this isn’t a compilation disc, with select numbers brought together from past releases. This is a concert album with a focused theme, captured with excellent detail and care for amplifying the text with appropriate musical rhetoric. While we will never know for sure how these pieces sounded over the course of Monteverdi’s career, it’s important for us to remember that most music from the baroque was considered like fresh organic produce. It wasn’t made to sit around. That’s the artificial implication of this album. How curious Monteverdi would be, considering hearing his music performed in 2021, if not his earlier pieces alongside the later?
While my introduction to Monteverdi was by force (having studied music history with a professor whose dissertation was on the music of Monteverdi), I think this album is an excellent point of entry for fans of pre-classical music who may not know where to start with the baroque period’s first superstar. If Monteverdi’s charms under the confidence of Concerto Italiano move you, there is plenty more to explore on disc from this same ensemble, La Vexiana, Cantus Cölln, among others… This album also serves as an excellent introduction into so many elements that came to define a historical period, no matter they are focused around the first fifty years of the seventieth century in modern day Italy’s north-eastern corner.