Classy madrigal singing

March 02, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

It's hard to believe that Claudio Monteverdi -- the greatest composer of the 17th century and one of the greatest ever -- was a forgotten figure less than a century after his death. Mozart and Beethoven never saw a note of his music. For us, it would be as if the music of Brahms had never been written.

Monteverdi's music came roaring back about 70 years ago, partly because of a pioneering set of records of his madrigals by singers conducted by Nadia Boulanger. Today the most eloquent champions of those madrigals may be the Consort of Musicke, which made an appearance in a program of them in the Candlelight series at Howard Community College Saturday night.

This group of extraordinary singers -- sopranos Emma Kirkby and Evelyn Tubb, alto Mary Nichols, tenors Andrew King and Paul Agnew and bass Simon Grant -- and its director and lutenist Anthony Rooley gave us 16 of the composer's madrigals that ranged over his entire career: early works in which the strands of the polyphony are in perfect balance, and later works, more virtuosic and dramatic, in which the voices are used to express emotions so naked that they threaten to burst the bounds of form.

It goes almost without saying that this distinguished British-based ensemble understands that the essential thing about Monteverdi is that he always used the voice to enhance the texts he set. In his work, the wedding between words and music is truly inextricable. The emotion latent in every word -- in the simplest adjectives, for example -- is exposed in writing that can be both flamboyant and simple.

The singing on this program was pretty much in a class by itself. There was an unerring sense of pitch, tremendous sense of flexibility and a quality of collaboration that was comparable to what one usually finds only in the greatest string quartets. The singers knew when to sing together and when to pull apart, doing full justice to the sweetnesses and dissonances that make this music so unique.

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