Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music: Madrigal into Opera

I Fagiolini/Barokksolistene

St. John's Smith Square, 19 May 2010 4 stars

I FagioliniFor over twenty years now I Fagiolini have occupied a distinctive niche in the world of early music. A gap that few had perceived—of performances as engaging dramatically as musically—has become amply filled by the creative and unusual concerts staged by Robert Hollingworth and his group. This year's Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music, with its focus on the pioneers of the Italian style, provides the perfect context for the music that has become the staple diet of I Fagiolini over the years, that of operatic grandfather Claudio Monteverdi. Tracing the natural development from the emotive madrigals of the Seconda Pratica to the first incarnations of opera proper, the evening was part concert, part illustrated lecture, taking the back off musical forms and exposing their delicate inner workings to the audience.

Framed at both ends by the Prologue and Messenger's Scenes from Monteverdi's Orfeo, the concert's first half was a tasting plate of sixteenth century madrigals by Monteverdi, his contemporaries and predecessors. Alongside de Rore and well-known musical bad boy Gesualdo there were also works by the lesser known Giaches de Wert and Luca Marenzio, and it was these that proved the unexpected highlight. Unlike their sacred counterparts, there is nothing polite or understated about these works. Delighting in tortuous intensity of emotion, their expressively vernacular harmonic language stands in marked contrast to the polite RP of most motets, constructing a sound-world so advanced that it prompted musical scholar John Milson to ask; 'Is it great music or is it merely weird?'.

I Fagiolini made a compelling case for the former in their intimate renderings. At their best in the works for male voices, the group demonstrated paradoxically an expressive unanimity and an individual fluidity of expression that really allowed the music to live. Although exposed by the rather ungenerous acoustic of St Johns, they tackled the mind-bendingly complex issue of tuning such harmonically unstable music with impressive precision, only occasionally proving wayward in the upper voices. The moveable feast of personnel brought some variety to the fairly unremitting gloom of the material, assisting in the emotional colouring of the various shades of grief, regret, anger and despair on display.

After such sustained angst in the first half, the two sonatas by Salamone Rossi following the interval were a delicious emotional palate-cleanser. Frothily ornamental, they gave little clue as to the innovative tendencies of their composer, who is credited with being one of the first to bring the melody and accompaniment texture of vocal music to his instrumental compositions. Pitting two solo violins against the massed continuo they were comfortingly and elegantly predictable, serving to re-tune the ear after the harmonic vagaries of the earlier madrigals. The playful swagger and technical sophistication of Barokksolistene was amply demonstrated throughout the evening, but for these, the only solely instrumental works in the concert, it would have been nice to hear something a little more meaty.

The evening closed as it began, with Monteverdi, completing the journey from the stand-alone madrigal to a dramatically integrated musical whole. Composed as entertainment for the wedding-guests of Prince Franceso Gonzaga and Margherita of Savoy in 1608, Ballo delle ingrate is not a work calculated to please contemporary feminists. A short dramatic masque, it sees Venus and Cupid summon Pluto from the depths of the underworld to receive a group of 'ungrateful' women – banished to eternal torment for no greater a crime than having resisted Cupid’s summons to love. Fortunately the work is as rumbustiously dramatic as it is morally unreconstructed, and I Fagiolini’s creatively semi-staged treatment made a strong case for its charms.

Delighting in a villain of truly pantomime wickedness, Monteverdi’s Pluto is a floor-rumblingly subterranean bass, exploiting to delicious effect the full lower extremities of the range. His deliberate promenade around the church, eyeballing his audience, was marvellously discomfiting, but it was his demonic henchmen who stole the show however with their fleeting entry, enthusiastically fulfilling in their brief chorus the somewhat unusual stage direction, ‘with horrendous but harmonious voice’. Barokksolistene also got in on the action in their instrumental interlude, delighting in the gruesome aural effects and pitch-bendings that help characterise this climactic passage.

Both in terms of their sound and the choreography of their concerts I Fagiolini are unlike any comparable ensemble in the field. Stripping away the polite impersonality that the Oxbridge choral world has brought to so much Early Music, their emotionally committed and dynamic approach to their repertoire is irreverent without ever being gimmicky. Rarely have I learnt so much on a Sunday night, or had quite so much fun doing it.

Alexandra Coghlan

Photo: I Fagiolini

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