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GRAMOPHONE (05/2-2003)
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Harmonia Mundi

Code-barres / Barcode : 3149020173657


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Reviewer: Fabrice Fitch

A splendid, first-ever complete traversal of the last madrigal book issued in Monteverdi's lifetime

One of the most popular of last year's Gramophone Award-winners was Harmonia Mundi's issue of the complete Selva morale of 1641, Monteverdi's testament as a composer of sacred music. Three years earlier he had brought out his eighth volume of madrigals. Both contain music written decades previously, and it seems likely that he regarded them as complementary. How apposite, then, for Harmonia Mundi to go for a truly impressive double by releasing what appears to be the first ever complete recording (and at any rate, the only one currently available) of Book 8, so soon after Cantus Cölln's Selva morale. The blurb on the jacket says, 'Indispensable',and this is hardly an exaggeration. A complete Book 8 would be enough to whet any Monteverdian's appetite; but fortunately, completeness is not the only reason to hail the new arrival.

Jacobs's team of singers is well rounded and most effective, perhaps, in the large ensembles, which have a festive opulence about them while allowing the necessary shadings to come into play: such things as the opening of Hor che'l ciel and Ardo, avvampo are admirably done, the one suitably mysterious and opaque, the other happily (but convincingly) chaotic. And with one or two exceptions the soloists acquit themselves handsomely, too: Bernarda Fink's title role in the Lamento della ninfa is very affecting, and although Concerto Italiano's interpretation for Opus 111 more persuasively reflects the composer's instructions, opposing the tempo del' affetto del animo and the tempo de la mano, this is one of the high points of the set, along with those I mentioned earlier.

Two observations of a more general nature: first, even in the oft-recorded excerpts (and how many of those are there!) the new set offers - and most often, successfully defends - fresh viewpoints; second , Jacobs's direction encompasses fewer quirks than has been known to happen in this repertory. (His deployment of instruments, even on the continuo, is measured - even sparing, by his standards - but rich enough to evoke the splendid courtly entertainments for which these pieces were conceived. The instrumentalists are perhaps too easily overlooked in this repertoire: they do not draw attention to themselves here, but sound very solid and grounded). Given the importance of the set, that's just as well, since one will doubtless be dipping into it regularly; at no point did I encounter things that seemed likely to pall with repeated listening'.

Jacobs's feeling for the music's dramatic qualities is very keen, and - unsurprisingly encompasses the largest pieces, the 'one-act' operas II baIlo delle ingrate and Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (even though the shape of the former eludes me somewhat) . For these, some may prefer Concerto Italiano's recording which includes both pieces on a single disc, but Jacobs's less wilful readings are still most involving.

Any gripes: There are almost bound to be in a project this size; but mine are small, and are concentrated in a few of the slighter madrigali amorosi. But as the reviewer of the Selva observed last year, consistency on this level, and across such a breadth of music is a feat in itself, one that hadn't yet been attempted on disc. (Two rival ensembles, the Consort of Musicke and Concerto Italiano, have both devoted two discs to Book 8, but neither set is complete.) And by any objective criteria (not to mention subjective ones!), Jacobs has pulled it off. So if you're looking for a single recording, this is a natural first choice; and if you have several already, you're hardly likely to pass it up . This is probably going to figure as one of the highlights of my year's reviews.

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