Monday, 22 October 2012

The EXAUDI Italian Madrigal Book – A Tenth Birthday Celebration, 21 October 2012

Wigmore Hall

Andrea Gabrieli – Vieni, vieni Himeneo
Sciarrino – Tre madrigal
Monteverdi – Sovra tenere erbette
Io mi son giovinetta
Larry Goves – Sherpa Tensing stands up from the piano, says something quiet, and walks outside (world premiere)
Christian Wolff – Ashbery Madrigals (world premiere)
Monteverdi - Vattene pur crudel
Gesualdo – ‘Mercè!’, grido piangendo
Asciugate i begli occhi
Morgan Hayes – E Vesuvio monte
Gesualdo – Ardita Zanzaretta
Languisce al fin
Evan Johnson – Three in, ad abundantiam (world premiere)
Michael Finnissy – Sesto Libro di Carlo Gesualdo I (world premiere)
Monteverdi – Rimanti in pace

James Weeks (conductor)

This tenth birthday celebration for the EXAUDI consort, founded in 2002 by James Weeks and Juliet Fraser, commendably looked forward rather than back, by presenting the first performances of four new commissioned works, ‘the first tranche,’ to quote Weeks’s programme note, ‘of what we hope will become a long-term enterprise: the creation of a book of (mainly) Italian madrigals, each by a different composer. Our aim is to discover what the idea of “the madrigal” might offer the present day, either as a concrete historical phenomenon or as a set of more general principles: principles perhaps to do with the relationships between individual voices or the singers themselves, or to do with the idea of vocal expression, or simply to do with the humanist, secular impulses underlying the genre.’

The door is thus left pretty much open for composers to do as they will; whether something a little more prescriptive might have been in order, only time will tell. I perhaps responded more readily to those works more recognisably ‘madrigalian’, but that is doubtless a different, personal matter. (One should recall that the form had died out before and been reinvented more or less from scratch, fourteenth- and sixteenth-century madrigals possessing little in common beyond the name.) Michael Finnissy’s Sesto Libro di Carlo Gesualdo I is in a sense a transcription of Gesualdo’s Se la mia morte, dividing the six voices into two competing trios, one amplified. The dark, at times almost neo-expressionist, harmonies (or should that, in Gesualdo’s case, be palaeo-expressionist, since our terms of reference are certainly not his?) proved attractive for singers and audience alike. Evan Johnson’s Three in, ad abundantiam, sets fragments from Petrarch, apparently aiming to express difficulty or reluctance to communicate. I found it muted, fragmentary, for want of a better word, but ultimately perhaps not very interesting. Initially, I was unsure whether the intervention of a mobile telephone and ensuing conversation between one singer and the offending member of the audience, was part of the work or not; perhaps it ought to be incorporated.

Larry Goves’s Sherpa Tensing stands up from the piano, says something quiet, and walks outside sets a lengthy, repetitive text by Matthew Welton, to which the musical response seems deliberately sectional. Though in English, it retains another characteristic of the Italian madrigal: the privileged position of words. Christian Wolff’s Ashbery Madrigals seem concerned with quotidian experience in setting as well as text, though they are not without attractive enough harmonies; performance certainly lent them fine chiaroscuro.

Salvatore Sciarrino and Morgan Hayes offered examples of recently written works, which were not yet part of the EXAUDI project as such. Sciarrino’s Tre madrigal set Japanese haiku (Matsuo Bashō) in the composer’s own translation, itself apparently preparative of the Mediterranean sensibility with which the notes are imbued. Waves murmur, a cicada, bells, red sun, and winds appear. In performance – and presumably to a certain extent in score – we heard a post-Berio marriage of roughness and sophistication, intensifying the impression of Italian Renaissance roots. This for me sounded the finest or at least the most inviting of the ‘new’ works, but I am speaking from but a single hearing. Morgan Hayes’s E Vesuvio monte opts, as the title suggests, for Latin rather than Italian, setting Pliny the Younger’s description of the eruption of Vesuvius. A brace of countertenors comes to the fore, lending the narration a sense both of old and of new. The violence of antiquity is felt; whilst never sounding ‘like’ Birtwistle, that spirit, so inherent in the older composer’s work, sounded almost reimagined here – though that of course may well be a matter of me finding bearings rather than intent or indeed practice.

Andrea Gabrieli’s Vieni, vieni Himeneo had offered a well-chosen introduction, a welcome to performers and performance. The rest of the programme was devoted to Gesualdo and Monteverdi, avant-gardists both. Monteverdi’s Third and Fourth Books were raided, his voice unmistakeable in Sovra tenere erbette, redolent of both opera and choral music, and yet differently tender in the progress of its melodic lines and the harmonies created. Io mi son giovinetta was florid yet neither smudged nor merely ‘ornamental’, benefiting from a fine sense of harmonic direction. Vattene pur, crudel certainly marked itself out at the end of the first half as the masterpiece that it is. It seemed informed, or at least its opening did, by a more modernistic style of performance than had hitherto been heard in the Monteverdi works, though that did not preclude warmth. If here, as in the closing Rimanti in pace, I should sometimes have preferred performances a little more Italianate in spirit, the plangency of the latter arguably making it sound disconcertingly close to Couperin at times, then the chromaticism of the former remained searingly apparent, especially in those descending lines throughout the ensemble.

Extremity was embraced from the opening exclamation of Gesualdo’s ‘Mercè!’, grido piangendo, the sheer weirdness of the composer’s writing apparent, in no sense tonally explicable and yet sounding with necessity rather than in merely arbitrary fashion. Whereas Monteverdi in retrospect came to sound almost Mozartian, or at least classicistic, in his perfection, Gesualdo sounded more experimental, whether for better or for worse. If Ardita zanzanetta is almost skittish by his standards, the sense of split personality was still powerfully conveyed. The refusal to milk the ending of Languisce al fin was admirable.

Many happy returns, then, to an enterprising and highly accomplished ensemble!