Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Et In Arcadia Ego: Madrigals in Arcadia review – Collegium Vocale Gent at the Wigmore Hall

24 May 2024

A perfectly pitched programme focusing on madrigals and Mantua.

Wigmore Hall

Wigmore Hall (Photo: Benjamin Ealovega)

Arcadia was originally a pastoral poem written around 1480 by Jacopo Sannazaro, and published in Naples in 1504. It had a profound influence on the literature of the 16th and 17th centuries, with the term ‘Arcadia’ coming to describe, in the words of English poet Philip Sidney, a Grecian paradise ‘decked with peace and good husbandry’. As these centuries saw increasing urbanisation, it is no wonder that musicians, artists and writers should seek solace in thoughts of a pastoral idyll, and Mantua epitomised the clash between the ideal and reality. Surrounded by water and fertile farmland, which might suggest something quite rustic, the truth was it was damp and a centre of trade. The governing Gonzaga family, however, also ensured it was a cultural capital, and by the mid-16th century it was a leader in musical fashion and the place where the madrigal really flourished. 

This concert from Collegium Vocale Gent, directed by Philippe Herreweghe, presented a series of madrigals and orchestral pieces by five composers who were all associated with Mantua. It was exceptionally well crafted, with the 70 minute performance being divided into an ‘Intro’, and four sections entitled ‘Separation’, ‘Intimacy’, ‘Death’ and ‘Lovers’ Reunion’. Although grouping the madrigals under these themes did not create a linear narrative, it certainly created an emotional arc with which the audience could engage.

The instrumental forces comprised two violins, cello, lute, trombone, cornet and harpsichord. Most of the madrigals involved five singers, with Luca Marenzio’s Al lume delle stelle (pub. 1595) being an example of one in which the distinctive nature of each voice could come through, even as they all sounded very good together. There were exceptions, however, such as Sigismondo D’India’s Che fai, Tirsi gentile, which constituted a duet, and was accompanied by lute and harpsichord.  

“This concert from Collegium Vocale Gent… was exceptionally well crafted…”

Salamone Rossi grew up in Mantua and worked at the Gonzaga court. He published five books of five part madrigals, and innovatively provided a chitarrone (a large bass lute) part so that instead of five singers, one person could sing with instrumental accompaniment. Musicologists have used this development to distinguish the Renaissance from the Baroque, while his instrumental pieces similarly feel ‘Baroque’. Among the several included in this programme, Sinfonia a5 was a lively affair in which the trombone line often ‘followed’ that of the strings, while his Sinfonia grave a5 (pub. 1607) was a deeper and more melancholic piece. 

Giovanni Giacomo Gastoldi succeeded Giaches de Wert, who was Flemish but known as the father of the Mantuan madrigal, as the Gonzagas’ maestro di cappella. He was represented by his Concerto de Pastori (pub. 1591), which sees spring praised as the season of love. Written for a double choir, it suggests a large gathering of people, and thus hints at a style that was to become popular in Venice. On this occasion, it was interesting to see how the relatively few voices generated such an all embracing sound, and across the evening several singers stood out in particular. Miriam Allan revealed a notably well shaped soprano with a glistening quality, while Benedict Hymas displayed quite a rich tenor that nonetheless possessed a lightness of touch. Tenor Tore Tom Denys had a very ‘free and easy’ way of expressing the lines, which worked particularly well in this repertoire, while Jimmy Holliday revealed a strong and vibrant bass. 

The most famous composer to be included was Monteverdi, and the main programme ended with his Tirsi e Clori SV145 (by 1616), which began as a duet between Hymas and Allan, before everyone joined in to proclaim ‘Let us dance’ repeatedly. This lively and energetic ‘finale’ even saw Denys play the tambourine, with the result that the more this ‘mini-opera’ went on the more rousing it became.

• For details of all of Collegium Vocale Gent’s recordings and future events visit its website. 

• For details of all upcoming events at the Wigmore Hall visit its website. 

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Et In Arcadia Ego: Madrigals in Arcadia review – Collegium Vocale Gent at the Wigmore Hall
Collegium Vocale Gent / Dunford / Herreweghe @ Wigmore Hall, London