I had an interesting experience the other night, listening to the Harvard Radio station's program of historical recordings. The program included pioneering 20th century recorded performances of Monteverdi's madrigals, made at a time when Monteverdi was very far from being the household word that he now is, at least in Baroque music circles. The recordings, as some of you may know, were made under the auspices of the venerable (not so venerable then) Nadia Boulanger, muse and teacher of composition and musical theory to so many composers of the 20th century. A study period with her seems to have been an almost obligatory stage in the development of many composers, much as it was with Padre Martini in the 18th century (for proper counterpoint). And indeed she must have been a remarkable teacher, counselor, coach, and so on, in spite of being disagreeably anti-Semitic, among other things. oh well.
So here we were with madrigals from various different collections by Monteverdi. When I was in Amsterdam, during the very purist new baroque interpretation years of Harnoncourt, Leonhardt, and many of their less gifted and more dogmatic followers, I believe that it was the done thing to sneer at these performances which were so far from "authentic". Voices with vibrato! A piano playing the continuo! Non-historic violins! Horrors! Nowadays I listen and hear so much more real devotion to the spirit if not to some of the aspects of the letter of this wonderful music....yes, there are more "authentic" performances, although the term "authentic" is certainly dodgy. No performance except a premiere is "authentic"...but let that pass.
I would rather hear "Hor che'il ciel" in the hushed, tense, shadowy performance it receives here than in some pissy tofu-conditioned vegetarian interpretation by a bunch of white English voices led by the original pissy queen soprano, dreadful bitch Emma Kirkby (are my prejudices showing?). What really knocked me for a loop was a performance of "Zefiro Torna", a beautiful duet for 2 tenors on a repeating chaconne bass. I hadn't really heard the piece since I was in my late teens and it made a profound impression on me back then. Hearing it now, even with the aforesaid piano continuo bass, was mesmerizing, not least because of the first tenor, Hugues Cuénod, who is still alive today at 105-plus after making his met debut at 85 (in a character role) and who recently married his long-term partner. More power to him! His voice on this recording, as always, is a feather weight tenor which has an indescribably innocent sweetness and charm. His singing is deeply musical and very moving. I suggest listening to the recording if you can find it (probably not hard to find as it is of historical importance....)
Here is the text of the madrigal (can you imagine how teary I got, listening to it? See my earlier entry on music that moves me to tears....)
Zefiro torna,e di soave accenti
l'aer fa grato,e'l pie discioglie a l'onde,
e mormorando tra le verdi fronde,
fa danzar al bel suon su'l prato i fiori.
Inghirlandat'il crin Fillide e Clori
note tempran d'amor care e gioconde;
e da monti e da valli ime e profonde
raddopian l'armonia gli antri canori;
sorge piu vaga in ciel l'aurora,e'l sole
sparge piu luci d'or,piu puro argento
fregia di Teti il bel ceruleo manto.
Sol io per selve abbandonate e sole,
l'ardor di due begli occhi e'l mio tormento,
come vuol mia ventura,or piango or canto.
The west wind returns, and with its sweet sound
Renders the air delightful and unleashes the dancing seas,
And murmuring among the green leaves
Makes the flowers dance on the meadow to its lovely singing.
Their hair strung with garlands, Phyllis and Chloris
Sing sweet enchanting songs of love
And from the hills unto the valleys, both high and low,
The singing caves redouble their harmonies in echoes;
Yet more beautifully, the dawn rises in the skies, and the sun
Casts ever more brilliant golden rays, and a purer silver
Ornaments the lovely azure robe of Thetis.
I am alone, in lonely woods and forests
The burning brightness of two lovely eyes is my torment,
And, at the mercy of my fate, now I weep...now I sing.