Expressive Monteverdi from Les Talens Lyriques at Wigmore Hall

It gave us a welcome opportunity to hear the zest and zip of Christophe
Rousset’s Les Talens Lyriques – Rousset, stood with his back to
us, his hands hovering with vivid alertness above the keyboards of the
organ and harpsicord, a bundle of bristling energy – and to appreciate the
expressive talents of three singers who, though familiar and esteemed
presences in the concert halls and opera houses of Europe, are less
frequent visitors to these shores.

‘Chiome d’oro’ from the Sixth Book of Madrigals (1619) got things underway,
the entwining tenor voices of Swedish haute contre Anders J Dahlin
and Norwegian Magnus Staveland spinning ‘tresses of gold’: there was joy
and lightness of spirit, and a combination of precision and elasticity in
their silkily unfolding phrases and melismas; and, the fluctuation of tempi
gave the impression of being both flexible and controlled, as the music
conveyed the sweep of varied emotions. The mood was never too earnest and
retained its playful bite. Both singers studied in Copenhagen, Dahlin at
the Royal Conservatory of Music and Staveland at the Royal Opera Academy.
They joined forces again in ‘O sia tranquillo il mare’ (Whether the sea be
calm) from the Eighth Book, Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi, and
here they exploited every wonderful dissonance, ‘Mai da quest onde io non rivolgo il piede’ (I shall never again turn my steps
back to this ocean), throbbing with the pain of betrayal. As the strength
of their lamentation for the faithlessness of the poet-speaker’s beloved
was expressed in a musical shudder, both body and soul grieved. A poignant tierce de Picardie, ‘E spesso ancor t’invio, per
messagieri’ (often I send messages to you), seemed to suggest a hope which
then proved false, as the tenors swelled through their pain: ‘A ridir la
mia pena, e’l mio tormento’ (to tell you repeatedly of my pain and my
torment). Coming together in the closing, summative lines, they articulated
the moral – he who entrusts his heart to a lady and his prayers to the
wind, can hope for no mercy – in dark, low voices. This was a performance
that was at once visceral, spontaneous and expressively calculated to make
its effect felt.

Between these tenor duets, soprano EugÈnie Warnier performed ‘Quel sguardo
sdegnosetto’ (That disdainful little face) from the second book of Scherzi musicale (1632). I enjoyed the strong sense of engagement
between the voice and Isabelle Saint-Yves’ cello line, and the flashes of
joy which propelled the music towards its triple meter, though I found
Warnier’s tone a little ‘white’: pure and clean, yes, but full and diverse
enough to capture every drop of nuance that Monteverdi squeezes from the
text? – I wasn’t so sure. And, the very purity of the sound, here and
elsewhere in this performance, made the tuning of some cadential phrases
difficult to secure, as the floating soprano hovered rather than skewered
the pitched, while the string and continuo issued a grainier hue. Warnier’s
sensitive performance of ‘OhimË ch’io cado, ohimË’ (Alas, I am falling,
alas) – the ending was exquisitely still and poised – was preceded by
Giovanni Kapsberger’s Sinfonia prima ‡ 4 con due bassi (1615). Here, we
enjoyed the balletic violin fingering of Gilone Gaubert and Virginie
Descharmes which flirted with AngÈlique Mauillon’s harp and the ripples of
Laura MÛnoca Pustilnik’s lute, a silky ribbon against the gravellier organ
and cello timbre. Was Kapsberger’s Sinfonia offered as an instrumental
complement to Monteverdi’s experiments with vivid declamatory expression?
Or as a palette cleanser? Or simply to give the singers a rest? The
Sinfonia was not mentioned in Alexandra Coghlan’s programme note, and no
other items by Kapsberger, or for instruments alone, were performed.

Scalding dissonances returned in the tenors’ duet, ‘Ardo e scoprir, ahi
lasso, io non ardisco’ (I burn and, alas, I do not dare to reveal); there
was delicious bittersweet-ness which epitomised the contemporary aesthetic
– ‘Per trovar al mio mal pace e diletto’ (to find, in my woe, peace and
delight’ – and wonderful gradations of intensity as the rhetorical
fragments formed a cogent whole. The first half concluded with the ‘Lamento
d’Arianna’ from Arianna. Oh, that more of this contribution to the
commemoration of the marriage of Francesco Gonzaga and Marguerita of Savoy
was extant! One wonders what the newly-weds made of this ‘celebratory’
expression of such pain and torment … a suffering which, perhaps, expresses
a sorrow bound up with Monteverdi’s own dissatisfaction, grief and
restlessness in 1608. As early as 1601 he had written to the Mantuan Duke
expressing his concern that court intrigues might deprive him of his place,
and recording his affliction by illness, poverty and overwork, and a talent
overlooked. In September 1607 his wife died; two weeks later Monteverdi was
summoned to Mantua to write Arianna for a wedding which would take
place by proxy in Turin in February 1608 and be celebrated in Mantua with
two weeks of festivities in May 1608. The title role was to have been taken
by CatÈrina Martinelli, pupil of Monteverdi’s wife who had lived with him
from 1603, but in March 1608 she died of smallpox and the role was sung by
Virginia Ramponi: she was reputed to have learned the part in six days and
her emotive performance to have moved many to tears. No wonder that
Monteverdi later remarked that Arianna had almost caused his own

Warnier moved with freedom and naturalness through the lyrical arioso – the
vocal line is less rhythmically complex that the idiom of Orfeo
and fused music and language to express deep and diverse human emotions.
Her soprano was quite withheld at the start, allowing the harp and lute to
articulate the sentiments of the text, and the escalation of intensity and
rhetoric was admirably controlled, as was the responsiveness of the
instrumental lines to the voice. I wondered, though, whether it was wise to
position Warnier in the centre of the Wigmore Hall platform behind the
instrumentalists: could those seated directly behind Rousset see her at
all? So much depends not just on the vocal expression but on the ‘lived’
embodiment of emotion: one thinks of the Three Ladies of Ferrara, famed as
much for the luxuriant effusiveness of their manner and presentation as for
the beauty of their voices and their ability to execute elaborate

After Warnier’s rendition of ‘Si dolce Ë’l tormento (So sweet is the pain),
the second half of the programme was dominated by Monteverdi’s Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda – based on Tasso’s
mock-chivalric account in Gerusalemme liberate of the duel between
Tancredi, the Christian soldier, and Clorinda, the Muslim warrior he loved,
which ends with the death of Clorinda – which was composed in 1624,
commissioned by Monteverdi’s patron Girolamo Mocenigo.

Interestingly, in comparison to the 1607 Orfeo, the practicalities
of the premiere of which we know little, Monteverdi took great care to
describe how this work should be performed – details which, for obvious
reasons of practicality were not realised here. The two combatants were to
be armed, Tancredi arriving ‘on horse’, Clorinda from the other side. There
was to be no scenery. The instrumentation was also unusually precise: four
viola da gamba. And, Combattimento should follow swiftly from the
preceding madrigals in Book Eight, without gesture, with no warning.
Clearly Monteverdi was determined it would make the utmost theatrical and
expressive effect.

Here, such ‘effect’ was largely due to Staveland’s stunning control of the
dominating narrative. His engagement and concentration never wavered; he
united the drama; and though the melodic range of the narrator’s part is
quite narrow he conjured variety and power, mirroring the passions of the
text, and differentiating between direct speech and narration. I was
transfixed. Tancredi and Clorinda are not able to express their own
emotions until the very end. Dahlin’s high tenor line was both fraught with
tension and softened by sentiment: a real human appeal, driven by an
insistent and compelling anger. The instrumental playing was precise but
never rigid – indeed, even quite ‘fey’ at times: the shivering concitato repetitions had real grace, while pizzicato swords
clashed brightly and fanfares ‘trumpeted’ in rich triadic pronouncements.

This was a fairly short concert and so we were treated to an encore –
though at over ten minutes, Luigi Rossi’s Serenata a tre voci: Amante ‘Rappresentan gl’orrori di questa notte’ might have been
more appropriately positioned within the declared programme, which would
have at least given us access to the text. It made for a divertingly light,
and however well sung and played, not wholly satisfying close to the
intense musico-dramatic expression of love and war which had preceded it.

Claire Seymour

Les Talens Lyriques
: Christophe Rousset (harpsichord), EugÈnie Warnier (soprano), Anders J
Dahlin (tenor), Magnus Staveland (tenor)

Claudio Monteverdi – ‘Chiome d’oro’, ‘Quel sguardo sdegnosetto’, ‘O sia
tranquillo il mare’ (Settimo libro de madrigali); Giovanni
Kapsberger – Libro primo di sinfonie a quattro voci; Monteverdi –
‘OhimË ch’io cado, ohimË’, ‘Ardo e scoprir’ ‘Lamento d’Arianna’ fromArianna, ‘SÏ dolce Ë’l tormento’, Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda

Wigmore Hall, London; Thursday 21st February 2019.

product_title=Les Talens Lyriques at Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id= Above: Magnus Staveland

Photo credit: Anne Valeur