The Madrigal Transformed
The Monteverdi String Band
Oliver Webber (director)

The madrigal was, between the years 1530 and 1620, the musical form in which basically every Italian composer – professional or amateur – worked. They were overwhelmingly settings of secular poetry, often verses by many of the greatest Italian poets, including Petrarch, Ariosto, Guarini, and Tasso (in contrast to the relatively short-lived English school of madrigalists, where few of the leading writers of the time are represented).

Owing to its longevity as the pre-eminent musical form in the Italian peninsula, studying the history of the madrigal allows us to see the changes in compositional style over the course of the late 16th century; indeed, it was the performance of some of Monteverdi’s madrigals in 1600 that led to the epistolary argument between the composer and the theorist Giovanni Maria Artusi in which the distinction between prima pratica and seconda pratica was made.

The Monteverdi String Band, directed from the violin by Oliver Webber, presented their programme ‘The Madrigal Transformed’ at the ‘Echi Lontani’ festival in Cagliari, Sardinia, earlier this year (you can read Webber’s account of the long genesis and execution of the project in the September-November 2014 edition of Early Music Today); and thanks to a collaboration with the online arts and knowledge repository U-Sophia, their performance is available for anyone to view.

It’s a fascinating programme, well-balanced, in which the development of the madrigal form is examined not as a straight chronological progression, but rather in the form of a series of snapshots of its state in and around 1600, the sets being punctuated by readings in Italian by Oliver Webber and violist Wendi Kelly from documents of the time that provide background to such topics as the Monteverdi-Artusi debate, the art of diminution, and treatises on the art of beautiful performance.

Naturally, Monteverdi features prominently throughout, with selections from his fifth book of madrigals – representing the new, text-driven seconda pratica – placed alongside works by composers of earlier generations. The meeting of these two worlds was shown by several sets of diminutions (a form of ornamentation, particularly popular in Venice around the turn of the 17th century, in which – in its strictest definition – single notes are replaced by several of shorter duration) on older works.

It’s these diminutions that are most impressive and which most suit the MSB’s easy and carefree delivery, their performance being the very embodiment of sprezzatura as defined by Castiglione in his Book of the Courtier – another seminal text in the development of Renaissance ideas and ideals, which treats of many of the same topics as several of the readings. Particularly pleasing were the trio of Palestrina-plus pieces that rounded off the programme before the final item of selections from Monteverdi’s Orfeo; Christopher Suckling on bass violin seized his chance to shine in Selma’s bass diminutions on ‘Vestiva i colli’.

Elsewhere, Cavalieri’s ‘O che nuovo miracolo’ – the finale to the grand Florentine intermedia of 1589 – works well in a sprightly yet nuanced performance (as Webber points out in his notes, the instrumental performance of madrigals was common), as do the two items from Monteverdi’s later madrigal books, the ‘Ballo delle ingrate’ and the ‘Lamento d’Arianna’. Perhaps the slightly stilted renditions of some of the older repertoire are deliberate, further to highlight the radical break between the prima pratica and the seconda; whether this was the case or not, pieces by Lassus, Guami and Merulo sound rather staid next to the explosion of expression represented by the later music.

The MSB’s sound is quite unlike any that of any other ensemble I know that plays this music; its richness comes from the line-up of two violins, alto viola, tenor viola and bass violin, a range of tessituras that matches closely the voice distributions of a large part of the five-voice madrigal repertoire (in which a tenor voice is usually chosen as the quinto voice added to the standard soprano, alto, tenor and bass). Add to that richness of sound vibrant playing keenly attuned to the innately vocal quality of the individual parts and a programme with a clear thread, and the end result is a performance that is both pleasing to experience and rewarding to learn from.

Technically the presentation is excellent, although I found the sound rather bass-light (no microphones are visible on stage, suggesting that the majority of the recording may have been done by the video camera’s microphone). The presence of captions would have aided navigation through the performance – close attention is needed to keep up with the MSB’s slick movement from piece to piece.

Oliver Webber’s excellent programme note is printed alongside the video, and with the texts and translations of the readings can also be downloaded from the MSB website – I strongly recommend having both to hand when watching the performance, as they’re of key importance to understanding the concept behind ‘The Madrigal Transformed’.

Adrian Horsewood

Echi Lontani would like to acknowledge the support of l’Associazione Culturale Echi Lontani, gli Assessorati al Turismo e allo Spettacolo della Regione Sarda, il Comune di Cagliari, la provincia di Cagliari, and la Fondazione Banco di Sardegna.