When we think of Monteverdi in the 21st century the first thing that comes to mind is undoubtedly his first opera, Orfeo, the first extant opera. And it was not to be his last; Monteverdi went on to write a further nine operas, of which two have survived. Because of this reputation as a composer for the stage, it’s easy to forget that he was equally prolific, if not more so, in many other genres. As director of music at St Mark’s in Venice, he wrote many works for their choir, including his famous Vespro della beata Vergine. However, perhaps the most significant body of extant compositions is his madrigals, which filled eight published books in his lifetime, with enough left over for a ninth, published posthumously. It is in these works that we can see the full development of Monteverdi’s style from the renaissance polyphony of the early books, through the birth of the Baroque style in the fifth, leading to more dramatic and experimental settings in the later books.

Les Arts Florissants © Guy Vivien
Les Arts Florissants
© Guy Vivien

The seventh book of madrigals was the second published after Monteverdi’s move to Venice, and with it to a life of greater artistic freedom. In many ways it marks the beginning of the end for the Italian madrigal tradition. Gone is the consistent use of five voices, gone is the option of performing the work wholly a cappella. The seventh book requires soloists, singing both aria and recitative with continuo as well as in ensemble. It also requires an orchestra for the sinfonias between the sung utterances. This was a set of madrigals unlike any that had come before.

To mention everything that struck me about Les Arts Florissants’ performance of this long work would require far more space than I have here. The orchestra played not only with style and sensitivity for the music’s era, but with verve and excitement. The music danced in every bar, with a perfect combination of contrast and unity between the lilting strings and the effervescent recorders. The amount of variety in the continuo playing, with two harpsichords, two archlutes and a chamber organ, provided the recitatives with an ever changing emotional backdrop. A five minute recitative has so much potential to become boring, but there was no risk of that here.

The wonderful playing was matched by equally fine singing. The evening opened with Paul Agnew, the group’s musical director, singing the opening recitative, with a fine dramatic delivery and a sense of the nuance of the text. Mentioning all the singers would be gratuitous, as what stood out above all was the sense of ensemble. There was a care taken over dissonance and blend which few ensembles ever manage, the voices melded together perfectly and somehow managed to remain distinct. Together with the orchestra and continuo there was a sense of spontaneity and flare which only comes from world-class musicians working together over long periods of time without a conductor. This feeling of large group chamber playing is something you see so rarely on stage, and it’s truly a joy to behold.

Perhaps the most significant accolade for this concert is that it wasn’t boring in the least. Two and a half hours of one composer in concert performance always has so much potential to become monotonous, be it a Bach Passion or a Mahler Symphony. With these singers and players the hours went by in what seemed like minutes.