Composers: Tallis, Josquin, Daniel-Lesur et al
Performers: I Fagiolini/Robert Hollingworth
Catalogue Number: CORO COR16171

There are vocal ensembles and then there is I Fagiolini. Since its launch in 1986, Robert Hollingworth’s crack group of singers has done things just a little bit differently. An early music group with the anarchic energy of a new-music ensemble, they are as capable (and likely) to dispatch a world premiere as a renaissance rediscovery. The group’s latest project is yet another exception to the rule – a collage of works spanning six centuries that reflect the art of Leonardo da Vinci in his 500th anniversary year.

The first thing you notice about this release is the physical product itself. If ever there was a recording to buy on CD rather than download it is this one. Hollingworth has teamed up with celebrated art historian and Leonardo authority Martin Kemp to pair a sequence of the artist’s paintings, sketches and designs (all glossily reproduced here) with choral works.

Sometimes the connections are direct: Leonardo’s embattled Salvator Mundi (whose authorship is still in question) is paired with settings of the same text by Tallis and Howells – while others are more oblique. It’s not the Marian theme shared by Leonardo’s Annunciation and Victoria’s Alma redemptoris mater that connects them here, Hollingworth has explained, so much as the flowing folds of the Virgin’s robes, which find echo in the gauzy counterpoint of the composer’s eight voices, while Leonardo’s exercise in proportion, the Vitruvian Man, finds echo in the mathematical processes and proportions of the opening fugue from Bach’s The Art of Fugue.

The range of repertoire is exhilarating – extending from the group’s Renaissance heartland of Tallis, Josquin and Janequin all the way to Rubbra and Daniel-Lesur, as well as the newly commissioned Shaping the Invisible by the group’s regular collaborator Adrian Williams. But what of the performances? I Fagiolini is still at its best when
drama is the driving force. The grotesque character sketches of music from Orazio Vecchi’s madrigal comedy L’amfiparnaso emerge with delicious exaggeration, and war bursts bloody and vivid into the ears in Janequin’s La Guerre. The group rivals the Swingles for precision in the Bach, and the Williams (the most extended work on the disc) is sold with absolute conviction and rhetorical care.

Just occasionally in the polyphony, however, as well as in the hazy eroticism of Daniel-Lesur’s ravishing Song of Songs’ setting Le jardin clos, I yearn for edges that are just a little softer – less fleshy-secular and more otherworldly. But it’s a small criticism in a project of such breadth and ambition, proving that nearly 35 years on, I Fagiolini is still the most convincing musical chameleon in the business.