Christ Church, Spitalfields, 5 January 2011
A jewel of a Hawksmoor church, an accolade-showered ensemble and a feast of music from the 16th century titan, Claudio Monteverdi: fine fodder for a winter festival par excellence, as Spitalfields Music’s current series undoubtedly is.
Monteverdi is best known today for his operas and his Vespers of 1610, but until he was 40 he wrote madrigals almost exclusively; over his long life he produced nine volumes of them. These short pieces for small vocal ensemble with accompaniment on harpsichord, theorbo or both can blaze out unexpectedly as the more subtle forerunners of the modern pop song.
La Venexiana, proud winners of numerous recording prizes, are currently without peers in this music, offering a sense of freedom, theatricality and no-holds-barred emotional engagement that make it leap into being as freshly as it must have done 400 years ago. It still sounds incredibly daring: there is nothing Monteverdi will not risk in the service of the poetry (which includes Petrach and Tasso) and his harmonies are full of scrunches, clashes and innard-churning concatenations of unlikely sounds.
La Venexiana is a flexible-sized group; tonight they were five singers plus theorbo player Gabriele Palomba, with their versatile director Claudio Cavina nipping effortlessly from singing contralto to playing the harpsichord. Each singer is a master of character; and so charismatic a vocal actress is the lead soprano, Roberta Mameli, that I nearly mistook her for Anna Caterina Antonacci doing a spot of moonlighting. Her solo in Lamento della Ninfa was utterly astonishing: as sophisticated, sensual and raw as the finest jazz singer (she’s performed this elsewhere with an accompanying saxophone), while the Lamento itself is powerful enough to make Purcell’s Dido seem downright insipid.
Elsewhere, star spots found the three men -- Cavino with the romantic Raffaele Giordani (tenor) and the deep yet sparkly bass Salvo Vitale -- turning the parallel of love and war in Gera il nemico insidioso into hammy fun with a venomous sting in its tail; and Mameli and soprano Giulia Peri duetted celestially in the birdsong of O come sei gentile.
The only complaints around the church were that the encore was a madrigal we’d already heard; and that the concert -- 75 minutes with no interval -- was too short. We’d have loved hours more of it.
(NB: The following video is from a different occasion & in Spitalfields we didn't have certain elements of this performance. "No sax, please, we're British"?)