Monteverdi Madrigals, 8th book, and Sonatas by Dario Castello; Catherine Webster (soprano), Danielle Reutter-Harrah (soprano), Reginald L. Mobley (countertenor), Ross Hauck (tenor), Aaron Sheehan (tenor), Douglas Williams (bass), Tekla Cunningham (violin), Linda Melsted (violin), Elisabeth Reed (viola da gamba), Maxine Eilander (harp and harpsichord), Pacific MusicWorks, Stephen Stubbs (director and charitonne), Orpheum Annex, November 9, 2014

We have all been looking forward to increased cross-fertilization in early music performance within the Pacific Northwest and we were delighted to welcome Seattle’s Pacific MusicWorks under their leader Stephen Stubbs.  Their enterprising programme was entitled, ‘Songs of Love and War,’ comprising a selection from the eighth Book of Madrigals of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) and two sonatas of the same era by Dario Castello (1590-1648). The subject of Love and War is indeed challenging to the imagination. That it is common to feel pain in both is rich poetical soil to this day and, to find a musical unity in both, testifies to the genius of Monteverdi.

The remarkable contribution of Monteverdi to the expansion of the emotive range of art music in late Renaissance/Early Baroque Italy is widely acknowledged.  In the composer’s time, a group of intelligentsia in Florence conjectured that the many dramas of ancient Greece would have in fact been sung, so they began the process of reinventing in their own terms what this ‘ancient’ music might have sounded like. Thus, was opera born!  The near-obsession with the revival of Greek drama, with all its flashes of insight and pure emotion, fully inspired Monteverdi and it was to this end that his enormous volume of work within the genre of madrigali was created. Such works were largely meant for the private courts of the princes of Italy, intended to give a pure and exalted encapsulation of a single state of mind that would appeal to an audience of educated and sophisticated leaders.

At this concert, one could also be inspired by, and luxuriate in, the transparency and cultivation of the period performance style of Pacific MusicWorks.  Following standard practice, the ensemble breaks into smaller forces as demanded by the music, and it is often in these smaller ensembles that some of the most memorable moments occur.

As we now have come to expect, one delight was countertenor Reggie Mobley, who is in possession of a uniquely delicate, yet still powerful, instrument. Originally written for castrati, some vocal parts can be hard to bring accurately back to life, as we will never again hear them with the exact voices for which they were written. These vocal parts demand the sensitive, tender expression associated with the female voice, combined with the power and force of the male; no short order! With a text from the Song of Songs, “Ego flos campi” gave Mobley a chance to demonstrate his command and control while also creating the ‘affect’ of spiritual love.  And this he did with flawless ornamentation and great textual understanding.

Soprano Catherine Webster was also able to convince in the role of slighted and angry lover in “Et e pur dunque vero”. Being haughty yet vulnerable, Webster’s voice is clear and focused, sheer and sexy. The innovations of the period are demonstrated and played with: the underpinning of continuo -- allowing for greater freedom for the voice -- as well as the expansion of the use of dissonance to create audience empathy towards the performer, which Webster was certainly able to exploit. 

As a superlative judge of human nature, Monteverdi evidently did the world a favour by writing a work such as “Ogni amante è guerrier”. Nowhere else in the literature of love is there a better example of the male virtue of persistence towards the object of desire. Ross Hauck, Aaron Sheehan (tenors), and Douglas Williams (bass) sang with conviction and indeed personal experience, if I am not mistaken!

The basic challenge of this repertoire lies in its demand that the emotion or ‘affect’ of the piece be fully committed to without reservation or resentment, even if unfamiliar to the performer. One of the most well-known works on the programme was “Lamento della Ninfa” (Nymph's Lament).  This lament for female voice is framed by male voices that act as a kind of narration, but, more importantly, as witnesses to the pain that the soloist is meant to embody. It is the cry to heaven of the personification of female love and devotion beyond all reason, an archetype of neurotic madness, perhaps even monomania. Here I thought it was sung by Danielle Reutter-Harrah in a somewhat too sophisticated manner.  It seems that abandoning the veneer of civility would suit the piece better.  Styles clearly change in the performance of Monteverdi (witness Boulanger’s original presentations) but, as in this case, it sometimes seemed to be the decision to not fully push the ‘rawness’ of emotional extremes.

If all is fair in both love and war, then surely it is because they both recognize the pursuit of an ideal by any means necessary. Both may need defense from undermining outside influences. This is just the purpose of "Gira il nemico....", where the extended metaphor of love as war comprises the poem. The potency of this selection lies in the dual nature of the extended metaphor and the double entendres that might be present.  In the hands of Monteverdi, it is not as serious a subject as one might imagine.  Set for the three male voices, imitative entrances and strongly contrapuntal parts gave the singers plenty of room to negotiate the intended word play to thoroughly charming effect.

With the inclusion of two sonata concertante by Castello, the small chamber orchestra was occasionally allowed to display brilliance in its own right. Second violinist Linda Melsted particularly brought life and insight to her collaboration with the charismatic first violin Tekla Cunningham and the authorititative bass, Elisabeth Reed. In both sonatas, Melstad’s rapid imitative passage-work was most affecting.

This was a most stimulating and interesting concert.  We eagerly look forward the next visit by Stephen Stubbs and members of his ensemble in December for Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.

© Kate Mackin 2014