A warning to purists: there's little in the packaging of this CD to indicate the interpretive freedom with which the ensemble, l'Arpeggiata led by Christina Pluhar, treats some of the Monteverdi love songs and madrigals on the album. There's a hint in the opening track, the Toccata from Orfeo, in its wonderfully reckless abandon and prominent use of percussion. In Ohime ch'io cado, the solo madrigal that follows it, the continuo part is transmogrified into a walking bass, the rhythm is swung, blue notes abound, and the Baroque trumpet launches into frankly jazzy riffs between verses. We're clearly no longer in the land of scrupulously authentic period performance practice. It's followed by a traditional, but lusciously sensual performance of "Pur ti miro," from L'incoronazione di Poppea, its accompaniment as direct and heartfelt as that of an Appalachian folk song, sung with a smoldering - no, scorching - erotic charge, by soprano Nuria Rial and counter tenor Philippe Jaroussky. So, the listener is kept off guard from track to track about what the style of each selection will be. What all the performances have in common, though, is an acute attention to the emotions driving each piece, and to giving those emotions authentic and eloquent expression. Other highlights include especially spirited performances of Lamento della Ninfa, Si dolce e 'l tormento, and Zefiro torna (in the sly setting from the 1632 Scherzi musicali). Pluhar's varied, inspired realizations of the scores, and the sensitive and lively contributions of the singers (Rial, Jaroussky, along with tenors Cyril Auvity and Jan van Elsacker and bass Joao Fernandes), and the instrumentalists of l'Arpeggiata, make these performances shimmer with vibrant energy. The sound of the live performance is clean, clear, and present, and the pleasure of the singers and players is practically palpable.
All Music Guide
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Claudio Monteverdi was born in 1567 in Cremona, a town of violin makers ruled at that time by the Spanish Habsburgs, the eldest son of Baldassare Monteverdi. His father was an apothecary and barber, and practised (not entirely legally) as a surgeon. He conducted his business in a small shop rented from the chapter of Cremona Cathedral. He was evidently an admirer of the Roman Empire, for he named his children Claudio, Giulio Cesare, Maria Dotilla and Clara Massimiliana. Despite his modest circumstances, he arranged for his sons to receive the best possible musical training, in the shape of expensive private lessons with Marc' Antonio Ingegneri, maestro di cappella at the cathedral. Throughout his life, he was repeatedly to help his son get back on his feet financially when payments from the Mantuan court failed to materialise. In 1608, when Claudio was overworked, unpaid, depressive and 'at death's door' himself following the death of his wife and the efforts he had expended on the composition and rehearsals of L'Orfeo, L'Arianna and Il ballo delle ingrate, and had returned home to his father in Cremona, Baldassare wrote to the court in Mantua requesting his son's dismissal from the service of the Gonzagas - but was refused.
At the age of thirty-two Claudio married the singer Claudia Cattaneo, the daughter of a Mantuan musician. He had got to know his wife when she was a singer at the court in Mantua, but she gave up her career shortly after the wedding. They had two sons and a daughter, Camilla, who died soon after birth. In 1607, during the preparations for the opera L'Orfeo, Claudia fell ill, and she died some months after the first performance of her husband's masterpiece. Monteverdi appears to have been deeply affected by the death of his wife: he never remarried in all the years remaining to him, but took loving care of his children. His elder son Francesco studied law in Padua and Bologna, joined the Carmelite order in 1620, and became a tenor at St Mark's Basilica in Venice in 1623. His second son Massimiliano studied medicine at the University of Bologna. In 1627 he was arrested by order of the Inquisition for reading prohibited books, but was released from prison a year later after payment of a fine, and went on to practise as a doctor in Cremona. Claudio Monteverdi was ordained priest in 1631.
Claudio's younger brother Giulio Cesare, an organist, always remained close to him. In 1607 he published Claudio's collection Scherzi musicali, which also contains two of his own compositions as well as his celebrated 'Dichia-ratione' defending his brother against the attacks of the conservative theorist Giovanni Artusi, who reproached Monteverdi's harmonic innovations for their excessive 'modernity'.
Claudio Monteverdi composed his first collection of works, the Sacrae cantiunculae, at the age of fifteen. When he was twenty-three he received his first appointment, as singer and suonatore di viola at the court of Duke Vincenzo I in Mantua; once there, however, he very soon distinguished himself as a composer. When the court's maestro di cappella Giaches de Wert died in 1596 Monteverdi applied for the job but was passed over, which embittered him. Only after sixteen years at the court, in 1601, did he finally obtain the post to which he aspired, with the assurance of a better salary.
Monteverdi composed four books of madrigals between 1590 and 1605. In 1607 came his first opera, L'Orfeo, commissioned on the occasion of the annual Carnival and the preparations for the marriage of the heir apparent in Mantua. After initially refusing to return to Mantua after his wife's death Monteverdi composed a further opera there in 1608, L'Arianna, of which only the Lamento has survived. In 1610 he composed his most significant religious work, the Vespro della Beata Vergine, which remains unparalleled in the history of sacred music. After the death of Duke Vincenzo in the year 1612, Claudio and his brother Giulio Cesare were dismissed by Vincenzo's successor Francesco Gonzaga as an 'economy measure', an event which can probably be seen as the happiest in Monteverdi's career. The Gonzagas later regretted this decision and went back on it, with the result that Monteverdi remained in communication with Mantua during the years which followed.
After his dismissal from Mantua, Monteverdi spent a year without a fixed position, and moved back to Cremona to live with his father. In 1613 he applied for the vacant post of maestro di cappella at St Mark's Basilica in Venice, one of the most important musical functions at that time, and was immediately appointed by unanimous decision. He revitalised the choir, engaged new virtuoso singers (including Francesco Cavalli), bought new scores, reintroduced the practice of singing masses on weekdays and ferial days, and saw to it that the members of the instrumental ensemble received monthly payments instead of being remunerated on a per diem basis as before. Alongside the numerous sacred compositions he wrote for the Cappella Marciana, Monteverdi pursued an intensive interest in dramatic and secular works, publishing his sixth, seventh, and eighth books of madrigals between 1614 and 1638. He was highly thought of in Venice, and since the city was the centre of music printing, his fame spread abroad.
Prompted by the opening of the first public opera house in Venice in the year 1637, Monteverdi wrote his opera Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria in 1641. In the same year he oversaw the publication of his selected sacred music in the collection Selva morale e spirituale. At the age of seventy-five he composed his last opera L'incoronazione di Poppea, given at the Teatro SS Giovanni in 1642. The non-courtly venue enabled him to dispense with mythological material. The opera is set at the court of the Emperor Nero: thanks to her skill in the arts of seduction and her intrigues, the prostitute Poppaea becomes empress. All the members of the nobility betray, lie and murder, and the only two honest characters in the opera suffer banishment.
After a final journey to Cremona and Mantua, Monteverdi died in 1643 in Venice, where he was granted a solemn funeral. His tomb is in the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice.
If one delves into the circumstances of Monteverdi's life, one can only wonder what immense inner strength and inspiration must have guided him throughout his long life to follow his artistic path so consistently, to remain true to himself, to surpass himself in each new composition, and to leave us a large body of masterpieces which has paved the way for all subsequent composers and whose modernity and beauty we still find so extraordinarily moving today.
Monteverdi's most admirable trait is the enormous diversity of compositional techniques that he masters and interweaves with supreme skill. Our aim in this recording is to bring out the varieta of his secular compositions. The modernity that runs like a constant thread through his pieces and makes his music seem timeless even in the twenty-first century is self-evident if one considers, for example, his use of ostinato basses. Jazz musicians are supposed to have 'invented' the walking bass in the 1940s, but already in Monteverdi we find ostinato basses which diverge from the standard ostinatos of the seventeenth century, that are unique of their kind and sound extremely modern. Monteverdi first used an ostinato bass in 1607 in Borneo, at the precise moment when Orpheus walks out of the Underworld. He underlays the duet Chiome d'oro with almost the same bass.
Zefiro torna is the first vocal duet over a ciaccona bass in musical history. It was to be followed by many imitators, but still remains unsurpassed for its expressive accentuation of words.
The Lamento delta Ninfa is of particular interest. Here too was a first in musical history, the first time a passacaglia bass had been utilised in the form of a lamento - indeed, thanks to this piece the passacaglia later became, quite simply, standard form for the lamento. Monteverdi wrote in the title that the soprano voice was to sing in tempo rubato - a rhythmic subtlety that he precisely notated in the scores of many other pieces (with the resolution of the dissonances just before the following beat). In the Lamento della Ninfa, however, he only gives the instruction that the top part should be sung in free rhythm, while the lower voices must remain in strict time.
The special interest of Si dolce e 'l tormento lies in its harmonies. This is an aria (in the tradition of the strophic villanella), but in its harmonic language it conforms to the compositional technique of the seconda prattica. For half the piece Monteverdi leaves the melody on a single note while the bass descends stepwise: this produces harmonies that were forbidden (and unprecedented) at the time.
Con che soavita is of the greatest importance for our understanding of instrumental colouring of the words through the use of continuo instruments. Monteverdi labels its musical form concerto. Three differently constituted instrumental groups underline the individual words and sections of the text, a layout which is to be understood as implying an especially rich continuo with marked spatial separation. It is particularly interesting that he sometimes inserts a change of colour in the course of a single long-held note in the vocal line in order to underscore a messa di voce in the voice.
It is very surprising that Monteverdi never published a collection of instrumental pieces, given that he repeatedly intersperses his works with highly virtuosic episodes for all the instruments that were current in his day. We have therefore chosen to enrich our programme by plucking from their context a number of sinfonias and balli, as well as the fanfare-like Toccata he used as introductory music to both Borneo and the Vespro della Beata Vergine, and which was the 'signature tune' of the Gonzagas that preceded all their festivities.
The bass line of Obime ch'io cado is a walking bass laid out in a similar fashion to that of Chiome d'oro. Here we have allowed ourselves a little scherzo musicale in order to bring out the cheeky modernity of this bass.
Christina Pluhar, Paris 2008 (translation: Charles Johnston)