Tomorrow Brilliant Classics will release the latest stage in a major project to record the complete madrigals of Claudio Monteverdi. The project was launched in 2008 by the Dutch early music group Le Nuove Musiche, whose Artistic Leader is Krijn Koetsveld. It began with the recording of the fifth and sixth books of madrigals, released in January of 2014 as a two-CD set with one book on each CD. The project then continued in conjunction with the planning and realization of the Monteverdi XL festival in Amersfoort, whose performances this coming June will mark the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth.
Subsequent recordings have proceeded in an “inside out” traversal of the books of madrigals. A two-CD album of the seventh book was released in January of 2016, followed by the release of the third and fourth books in a single album, each again with its own CD, in May of 2016. Tomorrow will see the release of the eighth book. This book, which was given the title Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi (madrigals of war and love), was Monteverdi’s most ambitious project; and he worked on it for about 30 years. The book is in two sections following the ordering of the title, beginning with war and followed by love. As usual, those too impatient to wait for tomorrow can pre-order this new recording through its Web page on Amazon.com.
Those familiar with the genre know that, for the most part, madrigals are relatively short compositions setting equally brief poems for one or more voices, usually with optional instrumental accompaniment. Where the eighth book is concerned, however, Monteverdi takes on longer durations and more attention to the instrumental side. This is particularly the case in the war section, which includes “Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” (the combat of Tancredi and Clorinda). The text is taken from the twelfth canto of Torquato Tasso’s epic (and predominantly mythic) account of the First Crusade, Jerusalem Delivered.
About twenty minutes in duration, this single madrigal comes close to being a one-act opera. Indeed, Luciano Berio produced it that way with a staging that I was fortunate enough to see performed at Harvard University during my undergraduate years. Unlike most of the madrigals, this score involves dramatic exchanges between the vocalists presenting Tasso’s text and the instrumental accompaniment, which accounts for both the setting and the action. The vocal lines are all solo, divided among the two protagonists and a narrator. (Berio set his performance in a boxing ring with the narrator serving as the referee.) In this context it is worth observing that Monteverdi began his work on the eighth book shortly after the first performance of L’Orfeo and completed it about a decade before the performances of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (the return of Ulysses) and L’incoronazione di Poppea (the coronation of Poppea).
Another unique aspect of the eighth book is that each of the sections has a “song and dance” conclusion. The war section concludes with dance music framed on either side by a poem by an unidentified author. The opening text begins “Volgendo il ciel per l'immortal sentiero” (turning to heaven for the immortal path), while the concluding verse begins “Movete al mio bel suon” (moving to my beloved). Thus, the section concludes by setting aside thoughts of war and complementing the perspectives of heaven and earth, concluding in favor of the earth! The love section, on the other hand, concludes with “Il ballo delle ingrate” (ballet of the ungrateful women), with vocal parts for one bass (Pluto) and three sopranos (Venus, Cupid, and one of the ungrateful women). This is another dramatic setting that, with a duration of more than half an hour, can also stand on its own as a one-act opera.
As with the previous recordings, there is nothing to fault in the performances by Le Nuove Musiche under Koetsveld’s leadership. The only problem concerns how the individual madrigals are distributed across the three CDs. The first accounts for everything in the war section except the concluding ballet, which is saved for the final track of the third CD. The love madrigals, on the other hand alternate between the second and third discs, with the “Ballo delle ingrate” concluding the second CD. To be fair it is unlikely that Monteverdi ever intended all of these madrigals to be performed as a beginning-to-end traversal of the book, and this is probably just as true of the two individual sections. The division probably involved what would fit best on the available space; and, most likely, the only listeners likely to feel inconvenienced will be the score followers!