- Claudio Monteverdi - The First Truly Great Composer [Recommended Recordings]
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28 October, 2012
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Claudio Monteverdi
Recommended Recordings

( English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner, His Majesty's Sackbutts and Cornetts, Monteverdi Choir, Nancy Argenta, Julianne Baird, Simon Birchall, Michael Chance)
History's first great opera--the story of Orpheus descending to Hades to retrieve his bride Eurydice from the dead, only to lose her again--gets a fine performance (the best overall version currently available) from John Eliot Gardiner and his musicians. Anthony Rolfe Johnson performs the title role with all the beautiful sound you'd expect from an Orfeo; he negotiates virtuoso passages flawlessly and sings passionately without overwhelming Monteverdi's music with too much voice. Julianne Baird as Eurydice and Anne Sofie Von Otter in a gripping appearance as the Messenger are the standouts in a cast without a weak link. Everyone involved, including the chorus and orchestra, performs with such energy, beauty, and precision that even long stretches of recitative never pall. (review by Matthew Westphal)

Quinto Libro di Madrigali
(Rinaldo Alessandrini; Concerto Italiano)
Monteverdi's Fifth Book of Madrigals begins like the Fourth Book--the first half of the publication contains five-voice a cappella madrigals (with optional continuo) that use surprising dissonances to express the images and sentiments of their texts with extraordinary intensity. The second half, however, breaks new ground: the continuo (i.e., accompanying chord instrument like harpsichord or lute) part becomes independent (and indispensable), thus enabling Monteverdi to set extended passages for one or two voices. One fine example is "T'amo, mia vita" ("I love you, my life")--a rapturous meditation by a young lover who has heard his beloved utter those words. Monteverdi sets the four words for solo soprano, repeating them between lines of the young man's reverie as if replayed over and over in his mind. Concerto Italiano's performance is, quite simply, extraordinary. (review by Matthew Westphal)

Sacred Vocal Music of Monteverdi
(David Thomas, Emma Kirkby, et al; Parley of Instruments)
There's no grand, large-scale music on this exceptional disc--only psalms and hymns for soprano, tenor, bass and strings in various combinations. Typical of the music are three settings of "Confitebor tibi, Domine" (Psalm 110): a jaunty but graceful setting for soprano and tenor, with athletic runs and a gorgeous slow ending; a moderate but charged setting for three voices, each singer delivering a verse in turn before joining dramatically at "sanctum et terribile" ("holy and terrible"); and a setting for soprano and strings combining enchanting delicacy with astonishing virtuosity. That description fits the singing of Emma Kirkby perfectly here; Ian Partridge and David Thomas make ideal partners. After fifteen years in release, this remains one of the best Monteverdi records in the catalog. (review by Matthew Westphal)

Vespro della Beata Virgine
(Paul Agnew, Clive Bayley, et al; Les Arts Florissants, Les Saqueboutiers du Toulouse, William Christie, conductor)
Monteverdi's Vespers is a monumental collection of musical settings of liturgical texts for a service in honor of the Virgin. It presents a cornucopia of styles, stretching from traditional plainchant to a forward-looking, innovative aesthetic, and bridges the gap between the Renaissance and the beginnings of Baroque musical language. William Christie leads a beautifully sculpted, majestic performance that is responsive to this stylistic profusion but also makes a case for underlying structural cohesion. The instrumental and choral playing is richly textured, while the soloists give exquisitely wrought accounts of Monteverdi's elaborate word painting. (review by Thomas May)


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