The singers and instrumentalists of Les Arts Florissants returned to the Barbican stage to rapturous applause and cheers after their performance on Saturday night. “Unfortunately there is simply no more music! We have finished the book!” said the tenor and director of tonight’s ensemble, Paul Agnew. This marked the end of not only Monteverdi’s Fifth Book of Madrigals, but also the end of the tour of these magnificent works for Les Arts Florissants. Having spent so long studying, singing and presenting these masterpieces, it was with a sense of sadness that the performers left the stage.

Paul Agnew © Denis Rouvre
Paul Agnew
© Denis Rouvre

Monteverdi’s Fifth Book, as was explained so eloquently by Agnew at the beginning of the evening, is an exploration of the new style of composition, the seconda prattica, which gives the composer all the tools he needs to write his first opera: the famous Orfeo. The book starts with homophony, with the text always at the forefront of the musical material and the wonderfully blended and phrased voices of the group bringing the words to life. Already, Monteverdi is pushing the boundaries of the genre, setting his first three movements in the first person – a dialogue between Amaryllis and Mirtillo with a summing up of the story in the ominous and languid Era l’anima mia. The singers ran the movements together, carrying the story forward in a smooth flowing way.

The madrigals were separated in tonight’s performance by a selection of Sinfonias by Monteverdi’s contemporaries, Luca Marenzio and Emilio de’ Cavalieri, which matched the emotional state of the preceding or following set of madrigals. A doleful interlude from de’ Cavalieri led us into the second set, in which we begin to see the first signs of opera in Monteverdi’s writing, with lots of solo voices working in juxtaposition to the rest of the ensemble. There are also the first few poignant dissonances that are so characteristic of the seconda prattica, which Monteverdi uses without preparation. The unexpected changes of harmony were complemented by a great variety of vocal colour from Les Arts Florissants, who were able to produce both ice-pure and full-bodied tone with equal ease.

The second half began with a short instrumental, with the violins echoing the typical Monteverdian ornamentation of the vocal lines, before we were launched into another love story, taken from Battista Guarini’s Il pastor fido, from which the majority of texts in Monteverdi’s Book Five are taken. The tenor again takes the solo role, with the contrast of smaller verse sections providing varying textures and vocal colours. In the fourth and final group of madrigals, Monteverdi adds the final touches to his new operatic form: instrumental accompaniment. Joined by the continuo, the voices have even more freedom and the solo parts now have a distinctly theatrical feel. The vocal lines become ever more elaborate and interweave in dramatic polyphony.

We finished the concert as we began, with a a large-scale work for nine voices. Unlike the Marenzio, in which the soprano solo was somewhat lost in the dense texture, the soloist soared over the accompanimental group and the other stand out solos were equally accomplished. The antiphonal writing and the harmonic interest of the rows of suspensions in the final lines of the work were wonderfully rich and the blend of the singers really showed in this work. The whole evening was a journey through Monteverdi’s growth as a composer, and also the growth of the ensemble, as they work through these books of madrigals: I look forward to the next instalment.

*****