The Union Chapel in Islington seems at first glance an odd concert venue, despite a layout which directs an audiences (or congregations) attention to the raised platform directly under the pulpit: an imposing, red-brick Victorian nonconformist chapel, it is bright and yet cavernous by day, but by night can feel very oppressive, with aisles that lead off into the gloom and pews tucked into dark corners. How would Monteverdis youthful, airy and sensual first book of madrigals come across in a space that seems to represent its very antithesis?
In the hands of a slimline Les Arts Florissants, the answer is perfectly. Once the audiences hubbub had died down, the acoustic proved wonderfully clear, both for the singing and for director Paul Agnews introductions. Agnew, who also sang tenor in the ensemble, is taking a young group of singers around the world to perform all eight of the madrigal books published in Monteverdis lifetime, a project that will take in over 100 concerts spread out between 2011 and 2014.
While it would be blissful just to hear those works in concert, Agnew has recognised both that the average length of the books is between 35 and 50 minutes i.e. not quite long enough for a full concert and that placing Monteverdi on a pedestal would be a disservice to those composers by whom he was influenced and from whom he learnt.
Thus, Agnew has chosen madrigals by Orazio Vecchi, Luca Marenzio and MarcAntonio Ingegneri (the latter being Monteverdis first teacher) as representative of the prevailing prima pratica style, as well other early works by Monteverdi, as a first-half prologue to Monteverdis first book of madrigal.
Most interesting was the comparison afforded by hearing three settings of Guarinis Ardo, s, ma non tamo and Tassos response Ardi o gela a tua voglia, by Ingegneri, Vecchi and Monteverdi where the earlier men had led, Monteverdi boldly strides on, and where even the great Marenzio sounds accomplished, Monteverdi (nearly 15 years his junior) sounds a complete master.
This line-up of singers could hardly be bettered young though they are, they clearly understand not only the power of Monteverdis often aching and searing harmonies, but also the many subtleties and suggestions in the poems. Sopranos Miriam Allan and Hannah Morrison were on exquisite form all night, their voices ideally matched; Morrison in particular is hugely expressive both vocally and visually. A mezzo-soprano in this sort of ensemble has a difficult job, having to flip between serving as the lowest voice in female trio sections, blending with the tenor and basses in lower-part writing, and then filling the middle of the sandwich in tutti sections. Marie Gautrot didnt sound in top shape, sometimes struggling to be heard below Allan and Morrison, but certainly has the right timbre for the job.
The men of the ensemble are formidable: Agnew shares tenor duties with Sean Clayton, and the pair complement each other very well, Claytons more incisive and steely timbre the perfect foil to Agnews more mellifluous tone. Bass Lisandro Abadie is no mere growler, either, and provides just as supple a baritone register as he does a firm low range.
The true musical highs came towards the centre of Monteverdis first book: while the ensemble had been very good during the first half, here their performance became masterful and staggeringly beautiful. The work that has obviously gone into this project is already paying dividends, and I cant wait to hear more of it.
Further details of Union Chapel concerts can be found at unionchapel.org.uk/