‘Ancient & Modern’ with Angelika Kirchschlager and Ian Bostridge

Yet, despite the indisputable musical finesse and
sensitivity to the text of all involved, the end result lacked a certain
frisson: a little more unpredictability or even capriciousness might
have heightened the emotional and dramatic impact.

Claudio Monteverdi moved to Venice in 1613, to take up the position of
maestro di capella at St. Mark’s. Although he continued to provide
music until the early 1620s for his former employer, Duke Gonzaga of Mantua,
the composer now found himself no longer an Italian prince’s private
‘servant’ but rather a freelance musician who could accept commissions in
and out of Venice, and he found a ready market for concertante style
works, combining voices and instruments, which provided popular entertainment
at musical evenings in the homes of the city’s wealthy elite.

The seventh of Monteverdi’s eight books of madrigals, published in 1619,
contains a miscellany of such concertante pieces, madrigals
‘proper’ and other types of song. ‘Tempro La Cetra’ (‘I temper my
lyre’) is a setting of a sensual sonnet by Giambattisto Marino in which the
singer initially declares that he has come to praise Mars, the god of war, but
then finds himself distracted by thoughts of Love. It is essentially a strophic
aria recalling the formal model of the Prologue to Orfeo: following an
introductory sinfonia, the four verses are supported by a repeating
bass pattern with slight variations, and a ritornello ‡ 5 drawn from
the opening of the sinfonia is interspersed between the verses.

As might be expected, Ian Bostridge was typically attentive to the
composer’s response to the nuances of the text, finding sweetness,
frustration, assertion, imperiousness and rejoicing in Marino’s
Petrarchianisms, and communicating these sentiments through a rich palette of
vocal colours. Moreover, he crafted the increasingly ornate expressive
decorations with fluency and naturalness, perfectly complementing Marino’s
evolving extended metaphors. The players of the English Concert brought energy
and joy to the concluding dance passage, confirming the singer’s elated
celebration of Love.

Thematically and stylistically ‘Tempro La Cetra’ is certainly a fitting
preface to ‘Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda’, a through-composed
dramatic work published in 1638 in Monteverdi’s eighth book of madrigals,
Madrigali guerrieri, et amorosi. ‘Combattimento’ was included
among the warlike numbers but had in fact been commissioned by wealthy
Venetian, Girolamo Mocinego, in the 1620s for the marriage of his daughter in
1624, thus underlining the metaphoric relationship between war and love. It
presents — “in genere rappresentativo” — an episode from Tasso’s
Gerusalemme liberate recounting a military encounter between the
crusading Tancredi and his former inamorata, the Saracen Clorinda, whom he does
not recognise in her battle armour and whom he slays, her dying words being a
request the he might say a Christian prayer for her soul.

Monteverdi prefaced the work not only with very precise instructions as to
how the work should be performed — the two combatants are armed, Tancredi
arrives on horseback, the conflict is to be depicted in gesture and movement
which corresponds to the text — but also with an account of his own
aesthetics: that is, his desire to depict all three of the ‘passions of the
mind’ — anger (musically to be conveyed through agitation), temperance
(softness) and humility (moderation), the first of these, so he believed, never
before having been satisfactorily embodied in music.

This imitative ambition was to be achieved primarily through rhythm and
articulation; it was not merely the emotions of conflict but also the real
hostilities of war which were to be depicted. The string players of the English
Concert proved adept at responding to the rapidly changing emotions of the text
and conveying the precise pictorial gestures in the score — the clacking trot
of the horses’ hooves, the stinging pizzicato clashes of the
combatants’ swords, the triadic fanfare flourishes. With controlled, detailed
ensemble playing, the spontaneity of battle was evoked by sudden changes of
dynamic and abrupt transitions from agitation to calm.

There were no horses or battle-dress on the Wigmore Hall platform, but even
with such accoutrements the work is far from operatic and, given that the
action is in effect related rather than enacted, it is not even very dramatic.
The Narrator, accompanied principally by the continuo alone, recites events in
a largely declamatory style; here Bostridge and Kirchschlager shared the role,
a rather odd decision given that essentially it is the Narrator who unites the
various elements, binding together the instrumental commentary and the direct
speech of the two protagonists. However, despite the rather restricted melodic
range and almost total absence of coloratura, both Bostridge and Kirchschlager
proved equally penetrating in using emphasis and pronunciation to observe the
passions of the text. Kirchschlager’s rich mezzo is not ideally suited to
this repertoire, but her intense, burnished lower register did bring urgency to
the conclusion of the tale; the more expansive melodic contours of the passage
depicting night — “who has hidden in her dark breast/ and consigned to
oblivion this magnificent action, memorable deed, worthy of the dazzling sun,/
worthy of the great stage” — were expressively crafted. One problem of the
work is that the direct speech for the sparring pair is rather brief, and thus
their emotions are not really directly expressed; only in the Narrator’s
final explication can there be any expansion of human emotion. However, Matthew
Long was a confident Tancredi, his warm, nimble tenor conveying the
crusader’s heated passions, and the final blessing of Julia Doyle’s
Clorinda, “The heavens open; I go in peace”, was fittingly pure and

After the interval, Long and Doyle were joined by Rebecca Outram and
Caroline Trevor for three madrigals by Carlo Gesualdo. ‘Dolcissima mia
vita’ (‘Sweetest life’) presents the familiar Renaissance metaphor of
love/death, Gesualdo’s piquant harmonies conveying the extreme emotions of
the text in which bliss and anguish are inseparable. The vocalists were always
alert to the rhetorical effects, producing a perfectly blended timbre while
decorously highlighting textual details, both collective and individual.
Perfect intonation characterised the sustained chromatic contortions of
‘Belt‡, poi che t’assenti’ (‘Beauty, though you are gone’), as the
voices lament the loss of Beauty — “you carry with you his heart, his
torments” — and the startling harmonic twists at the climactic cry, “I am
the one who should weep”, in ‘Asciugate i belgi occhi’ (‘Dry your fair
eyes’). However, it also seemed rather too well-mannered and demure. In these
madrigals, Gesualdo presents not flowing drama but static, extreme, abstract
emotions: chromaticisms overflow in a continuous stream, no longer a pictorial
device but rather the embodiment of the ecstatic fusion of contradictory
feelings. The overall effect should surely be one of both exhilaration and
exhaustion, even hallucinatory in its affective power; here, the impeccable
technical mastery was just a little too self-controlled and polite.

Self-possession and moderation were more fittingly deployed in the
concluding work, Stravinsky’s Cantata — a setting of anonymous fifteenth-
and sixteenth-century English texts which Stravinsky selected “not only for
their great beauty and their compelling syllabification, but for their
construction which suggests musical construction”. The nine verses of ‘A
Lyke-Wake Dirge’, a prayer for the dead sung by the chorus, are interspersed
with two arias, one each for soprano and tenor, the two soloists later joining
together in an intensely imitative duet setting of the secular text, ‘Westron
Wind’. Scored for a mixed ensemble similar to the wind-based groups of the
pastoral scenes in The Rake’s Progress, the architectural symmetry
of the form enabled Stravinsky to explore and experiment with temporal

Kirchschlager blended beautifully with the contrapuntal woodwind lines in
the first aria, ‘The maidens come’, before her recitative-like prayer
descended to a rich, contemplative warmth for the entreaty, “After ther liff
grant them/ A place eternally to sing”. In the long central carol,
‘Tomorrow shall be my dancing day’, players (flutes, oboes and cello) and
singer mastered the intricate series of canonical devices and increasingly
intense dissonances, with lucidity and precision, the at times unblended
instrumental timbres underpinning Bostridge’s beautifully decorated cantilena
lines. Despite the harmonic and structural complexities, the music remained at
heart melodic; the polyphony was never overly urgent and the overall effect one
of calm control. In contrast, the duet was stormy and impetuous, before
composure was restored in a postlude which concluded with a haunting
restatement of the opening of the dirge.

This impressive performance presented intriguing musical matter for the mind
but was not entirely up-lifting for the spirit.

Claire Seymour


Biago Marini Passacaglio ‡ 3 & ‡ 4 from Diversi generi di sonate
Claudio Monteverdi: ‘Tempro la cetra’; ‘Combattimento di Tancredi e
Carlo Gesualdo: Three madrigals
Igor Stravinsky: Cantata

image_description=Angelika Kirchschlager [Photo © Nikolaus Karlinsky courtesy of Askonas Holt]
product_title=‘Ancient & Modern’ with Angelika Kirchschlager and Ian Bostridge
product_by=Angelika Kirchschlager: mezzo-soprano; Ian Bostridge: tenor. The English Concert. Harry Bicket: director, harpsichord. Julia Doyle: soprano; Rebecca Outram: soprano; Caroline Trevor: contralto; Matthew Long: tenor. Wigmore Hall, London, Saturday 7th July 2012.
product_id=Above: Angelika Kirchschlager [Photo © Nikolaus Karlinsky courtesy of Askonas Holt]