Exaudi, Wigmore Hall

The concert included four new works, commissioned by the group as part of
their enterprise to create a contemporary book of Italians madrigals in order,
as Weeks declares in a programme note, to “discover what they idea of ‘the
madrigal’ might offer the present day, either as a concrete historical
phenomenon or as a set of more general 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 best of the modern were those compositions which drew direct inspiration
from the past, spinning a thread to span the centuries and create a dialogue of
continuing experimentation and creative expression. Michael Finnissy’s
‘Sesto Libro di Carlo Gesualdo I’ (AATTBB) exploited the sinuous false
relations, suspensions and dissonances of the sixteenth-century idiom, dividing
the singers into two trios and thereby explicitly intertwining elements of
Gesualdo’s original with Finnissy’s own elaborations and developments. The
resulting rhetorical gestures fused passionate intensity with tender
melancholy, all the while retaining the sensuous undercurrents which typify the
Renaissance masters.

Evan Johnson offered ‘Three in, ad abundantiam’, ‘three
micro-madrigals’ for two sopranos and one alto, which the composer describes
as “tentative supplements; insecure, mumbled marginalia … three denied
attempts at entry”. Fragments from Petrarch’s ‘Solo e pensoso’ —
articulating, with ironic paradox, the impossibility of communication —
appear and dissolve, the sparse textures, frequent silences (here sadly
shattered by an intruding mobile ’phone) and disrupted rhythms threatening
the dissolution of form itself. The work relies on the technical skill, and
courage, of the performers to establish coherence, however tentative, and here
they exhibited a dazzling virtuosity.

Christian Wolff’s ‘Ashbery Madrigals’ present three enigmatic texts by
poet John Ashbery — ‘Occurrence’, ‘A Penitence’ and ‘Perplexing
Ways’; ‘gaps’ and disarming shifts in melody and harmony reflect the
poetic ambiguity, the final madrigal diminishing from an energetic combination
of eight voices to a plainsong-like unison. For the preceding ‘Sherpa Tensing
stands up from the piano, says something quiet, and walks outside’ by Larry
Goves, Weeks stepped aside and, as frequently in this recital, allowed the
singers to establish their own intimate communication. While the combination of
a complex blend of solo voices — the soprano in the stratosphere — and an
occasional homophonic texture did recall the Renaissance idiom, the banal
repetitions of Matthew Welton’s text seemed strangely at odds with the
elevated expressive aspirations of the earliest madrigalists.

The piercing rhetoric of Morgan Hayes’ ‘E Vesuvio monte’ (2010) —
with its dense, accumulating dissonances, representing Pliny the Younger’s
account of the eruption of Vesuvius, contrasting with the delineated individual
lines of the eight singers conveying the narrative — and Salvatore
Sciarrino’s rarefied ‘Tre Madrigal’ (2008) completed the modern
contributions to the programme. Sciarrino’s refined, exquisite settings of
the Japanese poet, Bash?, conjured the mysterious glissandi, ululations and
micro-tunings of an oriental flute, the singers creating a clear, pure tone
which conveyed the poet’s passionate response to the natural world — the
waves, the cicada, the red sun — culminating in the stirring ‘hum’ of the
autumn wind.

Exaudi opened the concert with a mellifluous rendering of Andrea
Gabrieli’s ‘Vieni, vieni Himeneo’ (‘Come, come Hymen’, ‡8), notable
for its open, full tone and judicious use of vibrato, before exploring the
bold, diverse experiments of Claudio Monteverdi and Carlo Gesualdo, beginning
in the first half with three madrigals from Monteverdi’s early books.

Insouciant decorative motifs characterised ‘Sovra tenere erbette’ (‘On
the soft grass’) from the Third Book of 1592, evoking the delicate charm of
the pastoral setting; changes of tempi were well-managed, leading to the
affecting, slow concluding line, laden with erotic resonance, “Che per desire
sento morirmi anch’io” (“that I too am dying of desire”). ‘Vattene
pur, crudel’ (‘Go, cruel, go!’) demonstrated the more theatrical mode of
the stilo rappresentativo, the slightly dry, restrained timbre at the
opening evolving to a more impassioned utterance as the independent voices
became ever more florid, before diminishing to an ethereal pianissimo chromatic
descent, depicting the lover “in a swoon on earth outstretch’d she lies,/
stiff were her frozen limbs,/ closed were her eyes”. Even within the quiet,
delicate dynamic a rich counterpoint of vigour and elasticity conveyed the
emotional energy of Tasso’s final verse.

Gesualdo’s ‘MercË!, grido piangendo’ (‘Mercy! I cry weeping’)
opened the second half of the concert, the five singers revealing a supreme
confidence as they exploited the rhetorical idiosyncrasies of the idiom,
declining to a startling pianissimo to whisper “Ma chi m’ascolta?”
(“But who hears me?”). The low register and striking unprepared dissonances
of the close revealed the profundity of the treasures of the poet’s heart
which he longs to disclose before death. ‘Asciugate I begli occhi’ (‘Dry
those lovely eyes’) was characterised by intelligent, delicate
understatement, the homophonic texture, sensuous harmonies and slowly
accumulating dissonances communicating the text’s poignant blend of grief and

‘Ardita zanzaretta’ (‘Presumptuous gnat’) contrasted a spirited,
mocking liveliness with a more serious sobriety, twisting dissonant contortions
depicting the gnat’s poison and cruel death, as well as the painful ache of
the poet’s love. The singers showed their appreciation of Gesualdo’s
expressive eloquence in ‘Languisce al fin’ (‘He who is parting’),
coolly layering the voices and allowing the harmony to infer the bittersweet
pain of the poet’s fate.

Monteverdi’s ‘Rimanti in pace’ (‘Stay here in peace’) brought the
programme to a moving close, embracing both the pain of desire — as the
sorrowful Phyllis “fixes her shining eyes” on her beloved Thyrsis and
transfixes his heart — and the desolation of loss.

The juxtapositions of style did not always flow fluently; and, Weeks’
enthusiastic explanatory introductions were perhaps unnecessary, further
impeding the progression between moods and idioms. However, the insight,
sincerity and musical prowess of Exaudi was never in doubt, and the contrasting
parts combined to form an impressive and touching whole.

Claire Seymour

here for information regarding the performers and programme.

image_description=Exaudi [Photo courtesy of Exaudi]
product_title=Exaudi, Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Exaudi [Photo courtesy of Exaudi]