review Concerto Italiano Queens Hall

Monteverdi's madrigal "Era l'anima mia" is a musical portrayal of an orgasm. Perhaps it should carry an adults-only rating. At any rate, it was condemned by a pious contemporary; doubles entendres were perfectly understood at the time.

Madrigals used to be the territory of the bearded and sandalled, but Concerto Italiano, the young group of Monteverdi specialists who gave the morning recital on Tuesday, go strongly for the sex, the humour, the sophistication, the sensuality in these pieces. They are camp, exquisite, tangential, ironic.

Although this is a flexible outfit, fielding as many performers as the programme demands, there were six vocalists in this concert at the Queen's Hall, with two theorbo players and their director, Rinaldo Alessandrini, who also played harpsichord. The voices are intimate yet fresh and resinous, with the kind of reedy tone that suggests insolence and scandal. There is no hint of "early-music" pallor; everything comes across with take-it- or-leave-it brio.

Sometimes the manneristic polish is almost too expert, too uniform. Every phrase is shaped away to a pianissimo, every note swells to a rich fullness and then dies towards the cadence. But the bewitching rapid detail of "Io mi son giovinetta", with the two sopranos as cheeky girls, the richly savoured dissonances of "Non m'e grave il morire", the sensual caressing of phrases in "La bocca onde l'asprissime parole", all bore witness to the endless variety of this extraordinary composer. Very few of the pieces were sung unaccompanied (indeed, "Amarilli, del candido ligustro", which began the second half, was less successful), the two enormous archlutes being used wherever possible. Sometimes, these huge instruments seemed too loud, as when they competed with a brilliantly realised rustle of consonants in "Vaga su spina ascosa".

Some of the later madrigals are little dramas; the dialogue of Floro and Florida in "A Dio Florida bella" was discreetly hand-led, not pulled apart by the freedoms of semi-staging.

There were special showpieces: memorable were the clash and blend of the women's voices in "Ohime, dov'e il mio ben", and the absurd exchanges of the men in "Gira il nemico", a madrigal about warfare which was done as a comic production number.

Usually, however, it was the precision and unanimity that impressed, in the manner of a string quartet, the singers glancing at each other and moving their bodies in unison. It was all so scandalous, yet innocent: the perfect Renaissance impression.

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