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L’Arte del Madrigale
Giaches de WERT (1535-1596)
La Gerusalemme liberata (1586) [58:33]
Luca MARENZIO (1533-1599)
Sesto Libro de Madrigali (1594)
Nono Libro de Madrigali (1599)
Luzzasco LUZZASCHI (1545-1607)
Quinto Libro de Madrigali (1595)
Concerto delle Dame (1601)
Carlo GESUALDO (1566-1613)
Quarto Libro de Madrigali (1596)
Quinto Libro de Madrigali (1611)
Sigismondo D’INDIA (1582-1629)
Primo Libro de Madrigali (1606)
Terzo Libro de Madrigali (1616)
La Venexiana/Claudio Cavina
rec. November 1997-August 2009, various locations
GLOSSA GCD920930 [9 CDs: 536:39]

Some might think it strange that in a box set entitled "L’Arte Del Madrigale" there is no room for music by Claudio Monteverdi, the man often considered as the archetypal composer of madrigals. Here however we have settings by five composer contemporaries of the great man, all of whom, along with Monteverdi, can be seen to have influenced the development of the art form, as well as having exerted some influence on the master himself. These developments would eventually lead to Monteverdi’s magnum opus when it comes to the madrigal, his ninth book, which was published is 1651, some eight years after his death. It was probably compiled by his publisher from pieces he composed to cash in on his popularity. Nevertheless it contains some works which are at the very pinnacle of madrigal writing of this golden period. So, does this set need Monteverdi? The answer is clear from the opening bars of disc one, NO. This is music of great ingenuity and originality, and it soon becomes abundantly clear why these five men belonged to a cross-culture, one that not only influenced each other’s music, but also the development of the art.

The music of the Franco-Flemish composer, Giaches de Wert, was new to me; he composed around fifteen books of madrigals between 1558 and 1608, as well as other related works. The present disc concentrates on his Ottavo Libro de Madrigali, although it also offers four pieces from his L’undecimo Libro de Madrigali of 1595. This is wonderful music, music which only makes me want to hear more. Although he is not that well represented in the CD catalogues, I will certainly be investing wherever I can. The vocal line has a great clarity and beauty. Just listening to Giunto alla tomba, ove al suo spirto vivo, had me hooked. The use of an instrumental version of this piece to mark the change between books eight and eleven was a good move, a clear demarcation, with the first of the later madrigals, Cruda Amirilli marking a clear development in his own style.

The Italian Luca Marenzio, was born in a small town near Brescia where it has been suggested that he received his first real musical training. Although he is also known for setting religious texts, including madrigali spirituali, it is for his large number of secular madrigals that he is chiefly remembered. I came to appreciate his music through two discs. The first was of his Madrigali a Quattro voci – Libro Primo 1585 which was recorded by Concerto Italiano for Opus 111 (OPS 2-117) which is a lovely disc. It prompted me much later to get the Gramophone Award winning disc of his Primo libro de Madrigali a Cinque Voci (1580) by La Compagnia del Madrigale, another Glossa recording (GCD 922802). It has been said that there is no one Marenzio style of madrigal writing, and this is clear, especially when compared with the two books presented here. The four discs represent a nineteen year span of writing, in which his style can clearly be seen to develop and represent the changing attitudes to the madrigal. This is especially evident in the two later books presented in this set.

Luzzasco Luzzaschi was a pupil of Cipriano de Rore and was a fine keyboardist. He was appointed principal organist to the d’Este family in 1564. Fame came with his Concerto Delle Dame di Ferrara, and indeed it was through a Harmonia Mundi disc of this that I became aware of his music (HMA 1951136), a version of which is included here as disc six. I prefer this recording to the Harmonia Mundi one. Developments in research have led to a greater understanding of the singing practices of Luzzaschi’s day, and the vocalists of La Venexiana sound more at home in this music. The first of the two discs featuring his music in this set presents his Quinto Libro de Madrigali, 1595 and clearly sees him represented as a major figure of the musical life of his home town of Ferrara. Listen to Ecco, o dolce, o gradita, which is sung here in two versions, and you can see just how important a figure he was.

Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa is the most well known composer here, as much for his extra-musical exploits. He found his wife in bed with her lover and brutally killed them both, apparently returning to the bed chamber to make sure they were dead, an event for which he was cleared of any crime. If like me, you enountered his music on LP in the 1970s, it was probably through his Responsoria of 1611. I only came to know some of his madrigals much later. He was known for pushing the bounds of harmony and tonality, something that would bring him to the attention of later generations of composers, such as Stravinsky. This is to a lesser effect evident in the two Libro presented here. There is a marked development in his style between the fourth and fifth books despite there only being fifteen years difference. Compare Or che in gioia (1596) with O dolorosa gioia (1611) and the difference in the way that he treats the text is clear. No wonder he is now regarded as a major madrigalist of the period.

I have very little music of Sigismondo d’India, just a single disc in fact; that's of the Primo Libro de Madrigali by The Consort of Musicke on Musica Oscura (070895). The Primo Libro is also included in this box, but whilst I greatly admire the singing of the likes of Emma Kirkby, Evelyn Tubb and Paul Agnew, as with the Luzzaschi, La Venexiana sound more at home in this music. Stylistically he was regarded, through his use of different harmonics and dissonance, as having the most in common with Monteverdi. Listening to Dove, ah, dove ten vai or Donna, quanto piùa dentro on the final disc in this set one can hear why: the beauty shines through in this music.

Throughout these recordings, which stretch over twelve years, La Venexiana under Claudio Cavina are excellent. They bring a beauty to this music, which in the two exact comparisons I can make with discs I already own, are clearly superior and are now my chosen versions. All the voices employed on these meld well to produce a wonderful sound. The recorded sound has a slight reverberation, but rather than hampering the sound it adds a smoother, more mellifluous quality to the recording. The booklet contains a full track-list as well as brief historical background to the madrigal and the present recordings. If you place the first disc in to your computer you can access PDFs of the original booklets for these discs, which is a real godsend, as full texts and translations are included.

I began this review by questioning the wisdom of producing a box set entitled "L’Arte Del Madrigale" and not including any by Claudio Monteverdi, the perceived master. After listening to the beautiful recordings contained here, it soon becomes abundantly clear that he was not the only master of the genre. Let's hope that these recordings help the five composers break free from Monteverdi’s shadow. On this evidence they certainly deserve to.

Stuart Sillitoe



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