Early music lovers should be in baroque heaven in 2017 as this year is Monteverdi year. As part of their contribution to the 450th birthday celebrations, Les Arts Florissants, one of the most respected ensembles of them all are paying a visit to Sydney with two programmes of madrigals that take a chronological stroll through Monteverdi’s life from the ardent young maestro di cappella at the Cathedral of Cremona to the game-changing radical at the Mantuan court of Vincenzo di Gonzaga.

Looking at the sober face and long grey beard of the familiar portrait, it may seem surprising that the first madrigals were written as early as 1585, when young Claudio was as little as 17 years old. As Paul Agnew, the ensemble’s British Associate Musical Director pointed out in his engaging and personable chats from the platform, the madrigal for Monteverdi was the laboratory in which he mixed and experimented to create the building blocks of opera. When the commission to write Orfeo eventually came in 1607, it would find the madrigal-primed composer ready and waiting.

The first concert looked at Monteverdi’s time in Cremona – the years of the first three books of madrigals – Book I (1687), Book II (1690) and Book III (1592) – a span of five years, but the revelation of this programme was by what leaps and bounds the young Claudio advanced the form from his earliest works with their nod to Renaissance polyphony the almost operatic scena of Armida abandoned on the beach with its gripping text taken from Torquato Tasso’s epic Gerusalemme Liberata.

The six singers (Australian ex-pat Miriam Allan and Rachel Redmond on soprano, contralto Mélodie Ruvio, tenors Paul Agnew and Sean Clayton and bass Alan Ewing) would be hard to beat for impeccable ensemble and smoothness of blend. It’s a less ‘open-throated’ sound than some of the current Italian vocal groups, but that certainly doesn’t impair the sense of commitment to text and passionate response to mood. With the exception of the bass who seemed somewhat glued to his music, the other five singers swooped and bobbed as if involved in a complex series of courtship rituals, which in a sense they were.

The earliest madrigals find Monteverdi exploring conventional situations of love and loss amongst the nymphs and shepherds that fill the pages of many a tale of the time. Madrigals like Ch’ami la vita mia nel tùo bel nome (That you love my life in your beautiful name) and the sprightly La vaga pastorella (The pretty shepherdess) see him exploring his musical palette, slowing down when a heart is afflicted, descending lines when one dies (inevitably for love), and ascending when the crestfallen lover returns to life. Les Arts can caress a word like sospiro (sigh), or chuckle on riso (smile) like few others. In their hands and lips, you can almost taste a couple of baci soavi (sweet kisses). The playful coloratura-laden pleasures of Questa ordi il laccio (This lady set the snare) raced around the ideal acoustic of the Concourse concert hall like a game of musical kiss chase.

Agnew – a man who can chat off-the-cuff without hesitation, repetition or deviation – also drew our attention to what must have been a melting pot atmosphere where a composer like Monteverdi could pick up on the latest poem by Battista Guarini or Torquata Tasso before it had even made it to the printing presses. The first half culminated in a superbly finessed reading of Tasso’s impassioned Arsi et alsi à mia voglia (Yes, I burn but I don’t love you) – a poem that ups the emotional stakes considerably and finds Monteverdi responding with an experiment in essentially da capo form.

The second half introduced the second book – Monteverdi is by now all of 24! – and found the young Turk experimenting in longer, more complex poems and entering more deeply into what would become almost a literary love affair with Tasso. There were dazzling displays of vocal dexterity in songs like S’andasse Amor à caccia (If love went a-hunting), but also more personal explorations of darker emotions – accusation, spite, anger, frustration – in madrigals like the almost violent Se tu mi lassi, perfida, tuo danno (If you leave me, faithless one, it’s your loss).

Ecco mormorar l’onde (Here the waves murmur) is an extraordinary paean to the dawn, the vocal lines rising from the lapping depths – bass and tenor magnificently gloomy in their lower registers – to the dizzying heights of an elaborate musical sunrise (Mirian Allen, spot-on all night, but really out-doing herself here). And then there was the borderline pornographic Sovra tenere herbette, e bianchi fiori (Phyllis was sitting amidst green grass and white flowers). Sitting wasn’t all Phyllis was up to, judging from what can only be described as the madrigalian equivalent of an orgasm. As the singers sank down in post-coital bliss you could feel the blushes on the faces of over-excited audience members.

The bast was saved till last, however, with the intense sallies of Vattene pur, crudel, con quella pace (Go wicked man, and take with you that peace), the lament of the aforementioned deserted Armida. Laced with chromatic descents as “the bewildered woman’s spirit fails” and the harmonic daring around her swoon and icy sweat, the final dirge with its repeated cries of piango (weep) demands the singers explore extremes of range and reserves of emotion that would only come to ultimate fruition 15 years hence in the great Orfeo.

This was great music-making, by one of the great vocal ensembles of our time. The second programme looks set to top even this, with Books IV to VI and Monteverdi’s grand experiments at the Court of Mantua. De rigueur for lovers of early music and/or the art of singing.

Les Arts Florissants perform The Mantua Madrigals at The Concourse on April 4


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