Robert Hollingworth, founder and director of I Fagiolini, is an inveterate showman and there’s no question of which part of today’s lunchtime Proms Chamber Music he enjoyed most: Monteverdi’s saucy madrigal Vorrei baciarti, o Filli, in which an anonymous lover struggles to decide whether to kiss Phyllis on the eyes or on the lips. Chuckles ran around the audience as Hollingworth’s mouth approached ever closer to Ciara Hendrick’s as the two wove Monteverdi’s delicate counterpoint lines around each other.

Robert Hollingworth directing I Fagiolini
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Hollingworth’s purpose in creating the programme for this concert was to give listeners a whistle-stop tour of the main styles in which Monteverdi composed in the course of his long career. The five madrigals illustrated wonderfully the general difference in outlook between Mantua and Venice: the earlier Mantuan madrigals being full of elegantly poetic sighs and longing for unrequited (or at least absent) love, the Venetian Chiome d’Oro far more full of the joys of young love and Vorrei baciarti very racy indeed. The clear, soaring soprano of Anna Crookes was the most notable of the voices.

In between the madrigals was a glimpse of opera with “Possente spirto” from L'Orfeo, the song with which Orpheus tries (and fails) to charm Charon into ferrying him across to the underworld. Matthew Long produced some delightful legato, but didn’t exude confidence in providing precise articulation through the fast semiquaver passages – unlike the ensemble’s two violinists, who seemed to enjoying the fast passages hugely. There were nice contributions from harp and from a pair of cornetts.

I Fagiolini performing at the BBC Proms at Cadogan Hall
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Baritone Roderick Williams is a former singer with I Fagiolini (or a current one, if you accept his assertion that “Robert never actually fired me”). He didn’t sing in today’s concert, but took on the role of composer, having been commissioned by the BBC to write a short piece for the occasion. Williams chose to set the text of Lorenzo da Ponte’s “Là ci darem la mano” from Don Giovanni into a framework that was very much of the Monteverdi style, but using a plethora of compositional tricks and discords that decidedly date from several centuries later. Coming immediately after the Venetian madrigals, Williams’ piece gave us the clearest possible picture of how compositional fashion has changed: he uses multi-part voice in ways that can be very funny, and the joy of playing tricks with the voice is no different from Monteverdi’s. But where a Baroque or Renaissance composer would have introduced melodic sweetness, Williams goes for dramatic impact, angular discords and rapid fire passagework: slow breathed melody was notable by its absence. Still, there was plenty of fun for all, not least with the incorporation of text read (in English) from one of Monteverdi’s letters to his Mantuan patrons, including a poignant plea that it might be a good idea if the singers were allowed to see his music one hour before they had to actually sing it.

Our journey continued with a late work of sacred music, in the shape of a 1641 five part setting of Laudate pueri Dominum. This was a pretty piece, surprisingly delicate for a text which is a psalm saying not much other than “Glory to God”. We concluded with very secular music: a large scale courtly dance work, Volgendo il ciel per l’immortal sentiero, written as a paean for the Holy Roman Emperor.

This year being Monteverdi’s 450th anniversary, there’s a lot of his music being played and sung, and this concert won’t be the pinnacle of Monteverdi singing that you’ll hear through the year.  None the less, it made for a lovely hour’s escape from the cares of a busy world, and a fine reminder of the exceptional qualities of the Cremonan master’s writing for the voice.