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Monteverdi: Madrigals - Love and Loss
The Gramophone Award-winning ensemble Arcangelo presents a selection from Monteverdi's last three books of madrigals. These ardent and passionate works are microcosms of Monteverdi's great operas and among his most celebrated music. The eighth book of madrigals introduces the genere concitato - (agitated style) that Monteverdi devised to convey the emotions of war, whether physical or psychological. Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda sets an extended passage from Tasso's epic poem Gerusalemme liberata. Tasso's text, set in the time of the first crusade, tells of the combat between the Christian knight Tancredi and the Saracen maiden Clorinda. Most of the action is conveyed by a narrator, sung here by celebrated tenor James Gilchrist.
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I said the performance is fabulous, but there is one problem: the singing of one of the two sopranos - again both named in the booklet but I don't know which one it is - is heavily laden with vibrato to such an extent that, for my taste, the music is severely defaced wherever she crops up on the disc, namely an awful lot of the time. This happens in two of the four movements of the Ballo, and again plenty more times later on in the programme. The strange thing is that, as far as I can tell, the offending voice shows occasionally that it can produce a pure, clear tone, but for the rest of the time evidently chooses not to. This may not bother some listeners, but it does bother me because I much prefer, and have become accustomed to, clear, pure, steady voices in baroque music - Emma Kirkby, Mariana Flores, Carolyn Sampson, Nuria Rial, Hana Blazikova to name just a handful - and to me the wobbly vibrato we get at times on the present CD sounds very much out of style and out of place.
Moving on to the next item, the wonderfully theatrical and expressive 'Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda' (5), this benefits from another atmospheric, drama-laden interpretation, with every ounce of emotion and expression extracted both from Monteverdi's music and from Tasso's fabulous poetry. James Gilchrist does a fine job as narrator, and the unnamed tenor in the role of Tancredi is excellent as well. The Clorinda role is taken by the wobbly voice, but this time she is too busy fighting and then dying to get much chance to deface the proceedings significantly. This is followed by a superb rendition of 'Or che 'l ciel e la terra', again overflowing with poignant and painful emotion - its extraordinary closing phrase once again, unfortunately, defaced by that wobbly top line. This latter also applies to the next three items, but the programme is finally rounded off with a very fine rendition (10) of the Sestina 'Lagrime d'amante al sepolcro dell'amata'.
As I said at the start, overall this is a very fine Monteverdi programme which effectively demonstrates the great pioneer's extraordinary originality and profundity. Arcangelo, directed by Jonathan Cohen, are by and large an excellent ensemble - except that, in the vocal department, they need to get their stylistic coherence and vocal blend sorted out. On the basis that this disc has some outstanding merits, and that the soprano issue may not bother some people at all, it deserves four stars.