The style of Italian early music conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini and his Concerto Italiano might be described as both strongly expressive and highly intelligent. Consider this recording of Monteverdi's Sixth Book of Madrigals, pieces that hover between the older polyphonic madrigal tradition and the newer, essentially soloistic and dramatic language of opera. The texts of these mostly five-part pieces focus almost exclusively on extremely melancholy depictions of mourning for love lost, mostly through death -- something Alessandrini in his detailed and highly informative notes attributes to the death of Monteverdi's wife and his favorite female student shortly before the music was composed. Alessandrini takes the ideal of text expression as paramount, downplaying larger formal details in favor of a sequence of extremely intense moments. The famous Zefiro torna, track 5, loses the perpetual-motion quality it is often given as Alessandrini takes the opening two stanzas quickly and draws a strong contrast with the third stanza ("for me, alas, the heaviest sighs return..."). The group's sensitivity to the poetry Monteverdi sets, and its ability to express its nuances, is often breathtaking. Hear the last of the six "Tears of a Lover at the Tomb of His Beloved" collectively entitled the "Sestina," where "constantly the winds and the earth repeat: 'Alas, Corinna! Alas for death! Alas for the tomb!'" The picture of sadness that Alessandrini conjures here, with human emotions meeting shifting winds and seas, is overwhelmingly powerful, and there are many other moments on the disc that are just as strong. Alessandrini keeps the focus on the singers, with an unobtrusive accompaniment by theorbo and harp, or by harpsichord in the "concertato" madrigals that feature more dramatic characterization. If there is any complaint here it is that these newer-style pieces, with their solo, duo, and trio sections, aren't sufficiently differentiated in their performance style from the other works, which Alessandrini identifies as exploring "for the last time, and almost exhaustively, the possibilities of a cappella polyphony." Such works as the partially dramatic Misero Alceo, track 16, are beautifully sung but don't stand out from the group-vocal pieces like they should; Monteverdi was a composer who thought in terms of contrasting "practices." In the primary task of bringing out Monteverdi's effort to squeeze every bit of possible impact out of his texts, however, Alessandrini generally succeeds brilliantly. The quiet, up-close recording in Rome's Farnese Palace is highly appropriate for the music's very intimate qualities.
AllMusic Review by James Manheim
|Madrigals, Book 6, for 5 voices, SV 107-116|