Claudio Monteverdi spent a great deal of his career writing madrigals, of which he published nine books. The Italian ensemble La Venexiana treated us to a baker's dozen of his later madrigals, mainly drawn from books six to eight, in the elegant surroundings of Christ Church in Spitalfields. It's the perfect place to listen to Monteverdi: apart from the beauty of the architecture, the acoustic of the church seems to amplify the voices and provide warming reverberation without turning anything to mud. It's quite unlike any other venue I know.

Johan Botha as Tannhäuser and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Elisabeth © 2010 Royal Opera House / Clive Barda
Johan Botha as Tannhäuser and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Elisabeth
© 2010 Royal Opera House / Clive Barda

In last night's configuration, La Venexiana is composed of theorbo accompaniment and five voices: two sopranos, tenor, bass and the director Claudio Cavina, who either sings contralto or plays harpsichord. The singers are all strong, but two of them stood out as real stars. Listening to soprano Roberta Mameli was an extraordinary experience: her high notes soared effortlessly and rang around the church with glorious purity. Almost as impressive was bass Salvo Vitale: in spite of his diminutive stature, his low notes provided the most solid of floors upon which the musical construction is built. Monteverdi labelled the style of these madrigals as Seconda Prattica, a style which permits very free use of counterpoint and highlights the soprano and bass roles. In Mameli and Vitale, La Venexiana had two perfect performers to bring this out.

The level of freedom in the vocal writing is striking. Clearly, Monteverdi is in command of classic Renaissance polyphony: it's easy to recognise many of the melodic patterns and harmonies, particularly in the cadences. But this selection displayed an extensive variety which went way beyond the conventional, drawing on some wonderful poetry and inventing all manner of musical tricks to bring out the words. In Gira, il nemico insidioso, the three male voices complain of their hearts being under attack by a hostile love: the song is written as a call to arms and the military imagery effervesces with humour. In O come sei gentile, the unhappy lover compares her love to a caged songbird, with a delicate blend of the two female voices. In Perché t'en fuggi, o Fillide, the escaping nymph Phyllis is depicted in scurrying patterns, as her breathless pursuer heaves and sighs. My favourite, and perhaps the most famous of those played, was the Lamento della ninfa, in which the lamenting nymph's dazzling soprano notes are offset by a sympathetic commentary from the trio of male singers.

Much classical music education is based on a sense of historic progression, the idea that music has developed and improved through the ages. Last night provided a strong counter to that way of thinking: this is songwriting that is inventive, moving, spellbinding, exquisite, and in the four hundred years since Monteverdi wrote these works, I don't think anyone has done it better. La Venexiana did full justice to these compositions, turning the evening into a rare musical treat.

*****