Lettere Amorose

Magdalena Kožená and Private Musicke

Queen's Hall, 20 August 2010 4 stars

© Mathias Bothor/ Deutsche GrammophonSomething a little bit different from the regular Queen's Hall morning at the Festival: a stunning performance of renaissance and early modern song, with the charming sonorities of plucked and fretted strings (plucked, strummed, caressed) supporting charismatic vocal artistry in a style perhaps more familiar in its informality among the various oral genres.

By coincidence I was listening to Arpeggiata's take on Monteverdi (Teatro d'Amore) at the weekend, which at times borrows from the sensibilities of west coast jazz (with cornetti instead of trumpet/sax), which brought back the thought that Monteverdi has everything you need for rock and roll: a strong metrical pulse, a simple but functional harmonic framework, and latitude for a whole range of melodic expression. Like Arpeggiata, Private Musicke is among the current breed of small and flexible ensemble responding to the same perception (or something approximating it).

Although it would be foolish to push the rock band simile too extravagantly, there was at least a distant echo of Pete Townsend in Pierre Pitzel's flamboyant entrance: at the beginning of the concert, he took the stage vigorously strumming a baroque guitar. The other members of the ensemble followed in a nicely choreographed, gentle crescendo, adding colescione (a narrow, long-necked lute), lirione (similar to a viol da gamba), harp, violone (like a double-bass), theorbo (way big lute) and percussion (mostly tambour and tambourine). For the following couple of hours, Mr Pitzel acted as master of ceremonies, leading the band and liaising with Ms Magdalena Kožená .

For her part, barefoot in a flowing summery gown, her shock of fair hair worn loose, Ms Kožená had something of the hippy chick about her—though when it comes to selling a song, there is nothing coy or ditzy about her approach. To the contrary, if one was going to express a reservation at all, it would be concerning a certain fierceness in the ardour of her delivery.

The homework, as it were, the scholarly prospectus underwriting the programme, focused on the madrigal as it was evolving in the early 17th century. In one sense it was reverting to something resembling the madrigal’s ancestor, the frottola, with its more monodic style, but with a century of innovation in tuning, notation and instrument design vastly expanding what accompaniment could do. In the process, the vocal polyphony familiarly associated with the madrigal was being superseded by the solo vocal line, informed by intense debate about the relative importance of textual clarity versus musical characterization.

If there is a sense of jostling for preeminence among the ensemble's lines, and with it a clear focus on the performance of the soloist, then there is a corresponding price to pay in terms of the opportunities band members get to shine in their own right. That certain formality quietly asserts that the genre bending allusions to oral forms has its limits. It was lovely to watch Giovanna Pessi's harp, prominently placed front-left of the stage, but her opportunities to sparkle were relatively few. Even more so, Gabriele Miracle's virtuoso tambourine work tucked away behind the lirione and violone. You might think that I am joking, but I am not: his interventions, in rich yet delicate timbres, were a joy to behold.

The period, though—the early seventeenth century—was a thin one for composers and for music-making, with Europe convulsed and disrupted by war. Correspondingly, the repertoire for this concert is not, when push comes to shove, the most compelling. Even the Monteverdi numbers 'Si dolce č 'il tormento' and 'Quel sguardo sdegnosetto' were not of the finest vintage. For the most part, then, these were engaging rather than moving or stirring songs, the second Monteverdi at the end of the second half still standing head and shoulders above the rest, with the notable exception of Barbara Strozzi's 'L’Eraclito amoroso', which received perhaps the most thoroughly persuasive performance of the morning.

The concert was recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday 25 August at 1pm.

By Peter Cudmore

Photo: Magdalena Kožená, © Mathias Bothor/ Deutsche Grammophon

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