Opera + Classical Music Features

Preview: Les Arts Florissants

Paul Agnew

Paul Agnew

Claudio Monteverdi has had several significant anniversaries in the decade, notably the 400th anniversaries of his opera Orfeo and the Vespers of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 2007 and 2010 respectively. These would seem to reflect the greater popularity of those aspects of his output; namely, his operas and his sacred music.

In contrast, Monteverdi’s vast numbers of madrigals and other similar secular vocal works have acquired the reputation of being principally the preserve of specialists, and as such receive far fewer public airings. But those specialists who have taken on this music have dispelled any doubt as to the quality of this treasure trove: the Consort of Musicke’s pioneering efforts in the late 1970s and 1980s blazed a path for such ensembles as Concerto Italiano, La Venexiana and I Fagiolini, who in turn are the inspiration for today’s young groups, including Profeti della Quinta (winner of the 2011 York Early Music International Young Artists Competition) and La Nuova Musica.

While Les Arts Florissants may not spring most readily to mind as a madrigal ensemble, it does indeed have its own distinguished history with the genre, and has recorded many of Monteverdi’s later madrigals, as well as collections by Gesualdo and D’India.

The last few years have seen the ensemble turn its attention back to the madrigal repertoire, often under the direction of tenor and associate conductor Paul Agnew. A moving and atmospheric performance of Monteverdi’s sixth book of madrigals was one of the highlights of my musical 2010, and now Les Arts Florissants and Agnew are returning to London as part of an ambitious project to perform all eight madrigal collections that were published during the composers lifetime.

The more than 100 concerts are taking place between 2011 and 2014, and will take in locations all over Europe. The Union Chapel in Islington, the scene of last year’s triumph, will play host to a performance of Monteverdi’s first book of madrigals, published in 1587.

Very much the work of a young man and the youthfulness of Agnews handpicked team of singers will surely be a boon here and still firmly in the prevailing prima pratica of the time, this book already has tantalising hints of how far Monteverdi would take the musical language of his predecessors and invigorate it with a new, fresh, exciting expressive palette.

This is a rare chance to hear Monteverdi’s early style and output, performed with consummate grace and excellence by one of the worlds leading ensembles in this repertoire, and is not to be missed.

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Les Arts Florissants @ Union Chapel, London
Preview: Les Arts Florissants