MONTEVERDI: Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (from Eighth Book of Madrigals); Arie e duetti – Rolando Villazon, tenor/ Patrizia Ciofi, soprano/ Topi Lehtipuu, tenor/ Le Concert d’Astree/ Emmanuelle Haim, conductor – Virgin Classics

by | Feb 3, 2007 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

MONTEVERDI: Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (from Eighth Book of Madrigals); Arie e duetti – Rolando Villazon, tenor/ Patrizia Ciofi, soprano/ Topi Lehtipuu, tenor/ Le Concert d’Astree/ Emmanuelle Haim, conductor – Virgin Classics 0946 3 63350 2 5, 67:28 ****:

By the time that Monteverdi began writing his Eighth Book of Madrigals (‘Madrigali guerrieri, et amorosi’), the very nature of the books had changed. In Books I-VI we see the more traditional madrigal format of five-part singing with many complex contrapuntal textures. When Book VII arrives, the new style, a preference for solo singing, melody, and a lot of declamatory singing recitative-like has begun to surface, and the composer had to deal with it. He was not a proponent of this style, but had to adapt to it, and as the leading composer of his generation, had to excel at it also.

When Book VIII appeared (1638), the composer was well secure in his position as Master of Music at the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice. There was no need or desire to prove anything to anyone, and though he was now moving into a primarily sacred environment he was still free to fulfill commissions of all kinds, and indeed needed to, as this would be expected of such a personage in such a city as Venice.

Book VIII contains many different kinds of settings, but it is the passage from Tasso in his ‘Gerusalemme liberata’ that sets the stage for one of his more remarkable and popular madrigals, if indeed we can even call it by that name. This is the declamatory style par excellence, and only the slightest shove would tip it over into the genuine opera category. The setting is thus: Tancredi, a Christian, falls in love with a Saracen, Clorinda, whom, thinking she is a man (this is never fully explained), engages her in battle. After fighting like demons, Clorinda is mortally wounded and Tancredi permanently scarred when he removes her helmet and the truth is reveal. But all is not lost, as she asks for baptism and dies in a vision of heavenly bliss.

This last part is some of the most ingratiating music Monteverdi ever wrote, showing that his ability to complete with the up and coming songsters of his generation was quite formidable. As you might expect, there have been excellent recordings of this before. Rene Jacobs has the Eighth Book out on Harmonia Mundi in an excellent reading; I did a comparison on my favorite, Anthony Rooley way back in 1990. His Combattimento is more suave than this one (also 4 minutes slower); and the singing matches the tempo. Emma Kirkby is as stylish in this music as she has ever been, and the reading as a whole still stands up well, with a mostly homogenized sound with some well-behaved period instruments.

But Emmanuelle Haim has been intent on redefining how we hear much of this music. Since Combattimento is here divorced from the rest of Book VIII (Let’s hope more is forthcoming) she is obviously intent on our perception of this work being set apart from the rest of the madrigals. As such she presents a much fierier, dramatic version than I have heard before. Just the selection of singers should give some hint; usually we have been conditioned to hear rather gentle, almost unisex singing in these works, with any hint of emotion being carefully put in check. Not so here—just listen to Rolando Villazon’s opening declaration “Tancredi, believing Clorinda to be a man” and you know that you are in for something different. This is a passionate, blood-boiling reading that makes no bones about presenting Monteverdi’s music in full-throttle battle-laden heat. Even Patrizia Ciofi’s last dying utterances are beautifully done, and Clorinda becomes all too believable. But the reading is not fierce—it simply injects some new life into the characters, and Haim’s vision of this piece as far beyond any sort of madrigal becomes clear.

Most of the album is devoted to the composer’s duets and arias. Monteverdi tended to release these works in smaller groups like the 1632 Scherzi musicale, and though they are tuneful and melodic, he constantly represents the music in ever new accompaniments and variations, a problem that he recognized from the beginning in setting songs. They are delightful, and it is ironic that the composer who first perhaps resisted the move away from ever more complex Renaissance polyphony should be the one to help seal its fate with some of these masterly settings. Haim and cohorts again are ever-diligent in bringing this ancient music to light in a fresh and passionate manner. Period performances are definitely not what they used to be! The sound is vivid and bright, and full texts are offered with translations.

— Steven Ritter


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