At the height of his career, in the last two decades of the 16th century, Italian Renaissance composer Luca Marenzio was internationally recognized as the leading composer of madrigals. He was so popular (and the sales of his music so lucrative) that within years of his death, both Flemish and German publishers had issued volumes of his complete five and six part madrigals, an honor almost unheard of at the time. Marenzio's madrigals, while anticipating the songlike lyricism of monody that would come to dominate vocal music of the early Baroque, made full use of the textural and expressive qualities of Renaissance polyphony. His music was not quite as adventurous as Gesualdo's, but it still pushed at the harmonic conventions of the time in order to draw out the emotion of the texts with the maximum expressivity. Palestrina, the paragon of polyphonic correctness, is known to have despised Marenzio for placing expressive content above the rules of proper counterpoint.
Marenzio wrote over 400 madrigals, and this collection, a reissue of two Opus 111 releases, includes a healthy sampling of almost 50, written during the composer's most fruitful period, between 1580 and his death in 1599. Four-, five-, and six-part madrigals are represented, some a cappella and some accompanied, and there are several instrumental arrangements of the works made by composers of Marenzio's generation. Using texts by a variety of poets, they are remarkable for the emotional depth and inventiveness of the text setting, the sure handling of harmonies that are sometimes vertiginously chromatic, and their broad expressive range. The majority are melancholy meditations on lost love, but Marenzio finds infinite ways to express anguished intensity. Rinaldo Alessandrini leads the singers and a small instrumental ensemble of Concerto Italiano in impassioned performances. The singers have distinctive, lovely voices, and each sings with warmth and transparent expressiveness, but at the same time, their blend is gorgeously rich and smooth, an ideal combination for these madrigals. Naïve's sound is immaculate and wonderfully present. The collection makes a terrific introduction to Marenzio's work and should be of strong interest to fans of Renaissance vocal music and superlative ensemble singing.