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Madrigal History Tour
The King’s Singers
The Consort of Musick/Anthony Rooley
Directed by Peter Bartlett
Written and produced by Peter Butler
Sound Format: PCM Stereo
Picture Format: 4:3
Subtitles: German and French
2 x DVD 9 / NTSC
FSK: 0
ARTHAUS MUSIK 109123 [2 DVDs: 205:00]

This is a set of two DVDs originally made and broadcast on UK television by BBC2 in 1983-4 when it consisted of six programmes. The first is a thirty-minute documentary outlining the development of the Italian madrigal from its beginnings c.1515 in cities like Mantua, Florence and Ferrara through to Gesualdo and ending with Monteverdi and an extract from his eighth book. The concentration is almost entirely on Italian music although England and Germany have a brief mention. The remaining programmes concentrate each on the five major European countries.

At that time and following up the series I, and thousands of others, purchased a box set of two LPs of the sound track of each film (on EMI) and two collections of madrigals (published by Faber Music) heard in the series one in four parts and one in five. There were thirty-six in all, covering Italy, Spain, France, Germany and England. Some composers were well known like Lassus and Gibbons others were then new to us like Rossino Mantovano and Arnold von Bruck still hardly heard nowadays. This allowed keen amateur groups to investigate pieces and composers whose music was otherwise only available in expansive editions. I certainly used them in the madrigal group I ran at that time.

In the early 1980s the Consort of Musick and The King’s Singers seem to have had a much higher profile than now. The King’s Singers became well known due to regular TV appearances and then consisted of Jeremy Jackman, Colin Mason, Alistair Hume, Simon Carrington, Anthony Holt and Bill (Grayston) Ives; by then Nigel Perrin and Brian Kay had moved on. So the configuration, if required enabled two altos, tenor, baritone and two basses although the lower voices were versatile enough to extend their ranges when required. The Consort of Musick was a little more stable and the female voices of Emma Kirkby, Evelyn Tubb and Mary Nichols were at the height of their vocal and personal powers.

The script, always direct, clear and concise, is delivered by each of the King’s Singers in turn. Anthony Rooley also has his say; indeed he is interviewed by two of the singers in a Mantuan church cloister. Both groups have an equal share of the action.

This documentary has its charms but feel dated. The King’s Singers in cardigans or leather jackets lounging about on comfy sofas singing De Wert is tantamount to embarrassing. To offset this there are many appealing features. With the exception of the complexities of the Gesualdo, the group sings from memory at times outside in some glorious garden or ancient courtyard. The women in the Consort often dress in something approaching the elegance of the seventeenth century with some attempt at gentle dramatization of a madrigal as in that of Luzzaschi, even the sitting-at-a-table performances have a lovely sense of group rapport as the polyphony is passed between the voices. They are often accompanied by Rooley on lute or theorbo and in the Monteverdi a string orchestra is brought in. The performances are at wonderfully high level, which at the time were becoming something of a revelation as madrigal concerts before then had tended to be either by larger ensembles or by seconded opera singers quite often with a painful inability to hold a firm intonation.

The music is recorded at various locations as I shall mention below. Subtitles are offered at the bottom of the screen but only of the text being sung, no matter what the language. It's very rarely translated which strikes me as odd.

The next programme concentrates on France, especially the Loire Valley and is fronted by Simon Carrington who also wrote the forewords in the madrigal books. Keep your scores handy as you are not always told the composers. Janequin is certainly one and their virtuoso performance of his La Guerre is brilliantly colourful, especially the battle noises. The whole programme is again sung from memory as the singers are languidly draped around pillars and parks except for the central section of this complex work.

French secular music is put into its historic context perhaps a little too much; the context being the various Loire chateaux built and lived in by François I and his wife and family including his son Henry II, when they could leave Paris. These large and ornate palaces in Blois, Chenonceau and Chambord can still be visited.

The second film, still on the first disc, is of German music. This is a country that most singers often do not necessarily associate with the madrigal, largely because they are often omitted from printed collections. Bill Ives presents the film mainly from Regensburg once the capital of Bavaria. By a happy chance I was there only one week previous to watching and can vouch for the fact that the sausage museum is still there where frothing local beer is served by a buxom fräulein; suitable indeed for the drinking songs by Hassler and von Bruck which the singers perform around a groaning table of well-filled glasses. Just in case you think that German madrigals are all rather boozy Hassler’s deeply felt Ach, weh des Leiden is thrown in; as “good as any Italian madrigal’ Ives suggests.

I’ve often felt that Spanish secular music of the sixteenth century is the richest of all with its syncopated rhythms and emotional, harmonic content. Alistair Hume introduces this next film based in Salamanca, a wonderfully exotic city with two cathedrals and various ancient churches. Juan del Encina who is represented with Cucu, Cucu came from there. Later the group move to the unspoiled medieval town of Santillana. Again they are pictured arranged around cloisters and town walls. They end with a lively, fun and semi-dramatized performance of an ensalada by Matteo Flecha La Bomba. This sees them move from a domestic room to the coast and then to the cloister.

England comes next. Traditionally the British have underrated their madrigal composers. It's quite extraordinary that it is still not possible to hear all of Wilbye’s madrigals, Byrd’s or those of Giles Farnaby on CD. Now is the month of Maying takes the lead and we all know it. With its fa-la-la refrain it is really a canzonet, a form in which Thomas Morley excelled. We hear it whilst viewing morris men, maypole dancing and village cricket. Most of the programme, fronted by both Colin Mason and Jeremy Jackman is set in Kent - largely the two National Trust houses at Ightham (recently restored) and Penshurst Place. The latter was a favourite of Henry VIII. We hear William Cornysh’s Ah Robin (c.1510) from the Henry VIII Song Book, which is not strictly a madrigal. The contrast between it, and say Thomas Tomkins’ wonderful Too Much I once Lamented (published 1622) is worth reflecting on. Anthony Rooley returns accompanying on the lute. He is there in the final item, Dowland’s Fine Knacks for Ladies, in which the original printed edition with the parts facing the four corners of the table, is demonstrated and used.

So we end with Italy which had been well covered in the documentary. Again we are in and around Mantua and the Gonzaga Ducal palace. So overawed are the producer and crew by the artwork that we spend much time studying the frescos by Giulio Romano and Mantegna — no harm in that. Musically however we are reduced to light hearted fa-la-la, and sometimes slightly earthy madrigals, which don’t quite match the surroundings. We end with Monteverdi’s consummate Zefiro torna.

I should add that the solo pieces throughout the series, one in each programme and several madrigals, are accompanied by the Consort of Musick. As a group they are not seen, apart from in the documentary, as the King's Singers mime, perfectly I should add, and act, to the soundtrack.

This last programme ends with a coda, a rounding up of the various contrasting styles we have encountered in what has been a very enjoyable Madrigal History Tour.

On a more general level the film quality has suffered in places especially in scenes with deep shadows and bright sunlight. The sound quality is not always consistent. It's true that the counter-tenors are a little shrill at times, but my memory of the singers, and I saw them in both Tewkesbury Abbey and in a London concert hall during the early 1980s, is that in performance that was not the case. The DVD documentation is acceptable if a little brief.

The group continues and they are still recording to a high level but one feels somehow that the period 1978-1985 was a high point and that fame and fortune, showmanship and fashion moved on some time after that as other male groups came to the fore.

If another group were to construct a similar series I daresay that totally different pieces would be chosen but it's interesting that these madrigals became a part of the standard repertoire for amateur groups at that time. The performances were even imitated, even the electric speeds, which are there to demonstrate an exciting virtuosity. So to sum up, these films are certainly period pieces, but always good fun.
Gary Higginson



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