Collection: An Italian Journey

COMPOSERS: Banchieri,Gesualdo,Handel,Marenzio,Monteverdi etc,Palestrina,Vivaldi,Willaert
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Two centuries of music from Rome, Venice & Ferrara
PERFORMER: various ensembles

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No one has done more than Harmonia Mundi to unveil the riches of the musical revolution from the Renaissance to the Baroque. The symbolism and abstraction on which man could only meditate gave way to an aesthetic in which music touched the human passions, often to extremes – Monteverdi’s Orfeo moved its audience to tears. Harmonia Mundi’s magnificent archive has been raided to create a unique overview of three centres.

The ‘Journey’ is by time-machine; Venice is visited from 16th-century Willaert to Vivaldi two centuries later; music of the northern principalities ranges from madrigals to the birth of opera; Rome begins predictably with Palestrina and ends with Handel in his exuberant youth.

The accompanying booklet provides an inspired historical summary, sociological, political and stylistic. Clifford Bartlett, on Venice, includes enough information specific to each piece to help the listener. But there are no texts, so the expressionist word-painting of madrigals (Banchieri, Marenzio, Gesualdo and others) – a dissonance reflecting ‘death’, a musical sigh of unrequited love – is lost if you lack fluent Italian.

In operatic extracts, the problem is the same: as Penelope’s lovers strive in vain to string Ulysses’s bow, only Monteverdi’s vivid writing conveys their imprecations. The track listing conceals some shameful musical cuts: the Prologue to Monteverdi’s Orfeo lacks a third strophe, Corelli’s Christmas Concerto has no Adagio, a trio sonata has its Prelude amputated… But there are many wonderful high spots: Ensemble Clément Janequin’s vividly comic madrigals by Banchieri; Concerto Palatino’s enveloping 12-part sonority in a Cavalli sonata for brass; the brilliance of three native Italian singers reincarnating the virtuosi ladies of the Ferrara court.

Unforgettable soloists include Maria Cristina Kiehr, her heart ‘dissolving in tears’ in Caldara’s Maddalena…, Réne Jacobs singing a charming ‘fa-la’ by Bottrigari, Agnès Mellon ravishing in a Carissimi cantata. One disagreeably astringent sound from 1970 apart, recording quality is consistently excellent over the 25 years from which this collection is drawn.

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This ‘Journey’ is as revelatory an initial expedition as you could ever hope to find into a period which still remains the province of connoisseurs. A musical goldmine.