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CD Feature/ Monteverdi: "Madrigals Book 5"

img  Tobias

First, two facts: At its time, this was a rock record. And, secondly: There are three names on the cover of this CD and one lurking in the back. As to the latter: Delitiae Musicae are the tremendous vocal and instrumental ensemble taking care of business here, a well-known institution in the world of Early Music, about to celebrate their 15th anniversary next year. Marco Longhini is the conductor in charge, an expert on Italian masterpieces and therefore exactly the right man for the job. Ckaudio Monteverdi is the composer, a legend of the 16th and 17th century, who rose to fame and was hit hard by fate – it was not poverty or illness, which killed him, but a heart broken by the death of his whife and son. And then there is the shadow on the wall of the “Book of Madrigals” and its name is Giovanni Artusi.

Now, some background: Monteverdi was not a man without conscience or an amoral soul. In fact, his sacral works are counted among the most important ever. He was, however, as much a passionate person as a pragmatic – just like any other composer of his era, he needed the support of a noble and just like any other composer in the past and the present, he wanted his pieces to be enjoyed by the biggest possible audience, without sacrificing his ideals on the altar of commerce. Which brings us to his secular oeuvre and especially to his “Books of Madrigals”, which number twelve in total and which Delitiae Musicae have been asked to record in their entirety by Naxos. Comparing the impact of these pieces on the ear of “ancient” listeners to that of the first rock records, as I did in the first paragraph, does not full justice to this supernova. In fact, there might never have been rock music at all without the scisma between prima and seconda practica, which Monteverdi ignited – and it can only partially be explained by the increased clarity of melodic motives and vocal lines. Enter Giovanni Artusi, a theorist and ciritic, who fiercely attacked Monteverdi for this technique – and led Monteverdi to bring up the aforementioned break in theoretical continuity. What it effectively meant was that the polyphonic universe was gently coaxed into a more rigid corset of harmonic development – implying chord schemes and a more linear approach. Without this, there would be no pop and rock songs as we know them. Resistance to this “wrong”  or outright “vulgar” technique was strong, its popularity, however, even stronger – Monteverdi became a star and was considered a genius by many of his contemporaries. And listening to this disc, it is not hard to tell why. Dorinda and Silvio are the hapless protagonist of the song cycle, which evolves around unrequited love and the typical misunderstandings between men and women. The tears cried in vain amount to water falls the size of the Niagara, Silvio spends pages of lyrics to praise the beauty of his muse and Dorinda an equal amount of words to confuse him. A request to end his life is rejected, but in the end it all ends in sadness and a vow to stay true to his feelings: “I would wish my weeping eternal, just to bring her pleasure”. It sounds like pretty heavy stuff and it is, but the music is not just depressed, but rather a bittersweet lament.There are carefully placed instrumental parts, accentuating the vocals, until they engage in a nine-minute long dialogue in the grand finale.

Chances are high you will be moved by the tragedy of the story and the incredible beauty of the music on this classic of sorrow and pain, but the pure poetry of the libretto compensates for any too burdensome emotions. After all, a good rock record also walks the tight rope between revolution and cliche. And though it buys him nothing, the developments of the last hundred years have proven the effectiveness of Monteverdi’s ideas. After all, it is for a good reason that there are three names on the cover of this record, but Giovanni Artusi’s is not one of them.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Naxos Records

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