In the last two decades of the sixteenth century, Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara, supported an extraordinary professional trio of women singers and instrumentalists and engaged some of the leading composers of the time to write for them. The trio, known as Concerto delle Dame di Ferrara, performed only music that had been written exclusively for them, and only privately, for the most scrupulously vetted audiences. Perhaps the group's most remarkable legacy is the effect its performances had on Carlo Gesualdo, who spent a year and a half working with it and who wrote that the group's influence radically altered his views on harmony. Most of the repertoire for the group has been lost, but two of the ensemble's composers, Luzzasco Luzzaschi and Ludovico Agostini, published collections of madrigals after the Duke's death, and this CD is made up largely of their work for one, two, or three voices, with instrumental accompaniment. The music is characterized by an intense expressivity, harmonic freedom, and, in some pieces, almost freakishly demanding ornamentation. At the same time, it's consistently lyrical and gratifyingly written for the voice. The sound of the two or three women's voices in gorgeously interwoven contrapuntal lines, the astonishing harmonies, and the florid embellishments give the music an immediate appeal; anyone who loves Gesualdo's madrigals will find much to savor here. The performances by the ensemble Doulce Mémoire, led by Denis Raisin-Dadre, are consistently top notch. Sopranos Véronique Bourin, Axelle Bernage, and Christel Boiron sing with tonal purity and warmth, a beautiful blend, and great passion, and they are ably accompanied by an ensemble consisting of lute, harp, gamba, and harpsichord. The sound is clear, clean, and intimate.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Eddins