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  41:1 (09-10 /2017)
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Reviewer: James V. Maiello


Rinaldo Alessandrini and Concerto Italiano have garnered high praise for their spirited recordings of music by Bach, Monteverdi, Vivaldi, and others, so it should come as no surprise that the performances on this release, Night. Stories of Lovers and Warriors, are dynamic but still nuanced. In building a program around the themes of night and lovers/warriors (clearly inspired by Monteverdi’s Eighth Book of Madrigals), Alessandrini has tapped into the soul of 17th-century Italian music, a synergy of drama, Affekt, and contrast. As a literary and dramatic topos, night invited a suspension of societal mores and roles, as well as a hospitable environment for clandestine affairs and poetic reflection. It is into this world that Alessandrini invites us.

The disc opens with a sublime reading of the Sinfonia from act III of L’Orfeo, during which Orpheus travels to the underworld, charms Caron, and crosses the river Styx. The orchestra is confidently placid, each chord shimmering in its clarity and warmly enveloping. This is a brilliant choice with which to begin the program, executed in such a way that it washes away the outside world and immerses listeners in Monteverdi’s night. The hypnotic homophony of Hor che’l ciel e la terra follows immediately, each voice balanced perfectly, the texture lush and transparent. Here and throughout the disc, Concerto Italiano set the gold standard for rendering Monteverdi’s cadences and knotty dissonances. They lean in just enough to make each clash of tones viscerally torturous, but the ensemble never cross the line into garishness.

The Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda is the centerpiece of the program, and it is representative of the quality of all the performances on this disc. More to the point, this is without a doubt the best Combattimento I have ever heard. As I listened for the first time, there were moments where I legitimately forgot to breathe or was left slack-jawed. Raffaele Giordani is an utterly captivating narrator, delivering a dramatic and totally committed performance that sometimes diverts attention from his beautiful voice and expert technique. Giordani’s phrasing and embellishments reflect a fully internalized understanding of monodic conventions and 17th-century Italianate style, and he has the skills to make all this sound completely natural. Clorinda (Monica Piccinini) and Tancredi (Matteo Bellotto) are similarly impressive as a supporting cast, allowing for a truly multifaceted drama instead of a one-man show.

Like Mozart’s opera orchestras, Concerto Italiano amplifies the words and emotions of the Combattimento’s characters, providing support and musical commentary. The orchestra is a marvel here, agile and chameleonic. One minute, the sound and blend of the strings are liquid, the next the orchestra is gritty and percussive, all in the service of those pillars of Baroque aesthetics, emotion and contrast. Alessandrini is an erudite and sensitive interpreter; under his direction the strings are far more than the sum of their parts. Tempos are brisk, exciting but not hasty; slower sections never feel indulgent. He seems to know exactly what will be not just appropriate but also transcendent. The players seem equally happy to oblige.

Lamenta della ninfa remains one of Monteverdi’s most popular and enduring madrigals. Here, the vocalists make the most out of Gesualdo-like twists and turns, grounded by Alessandrini’s harpsichord continuo. Occasionally, the close harmonies sound less than distinct, but these moments are few and fleeting. The theorbo takes over some of the harmonic foundation, which is a welcome timbral change and also recalls several movements of the 1610 Vespers. Another highlight of the disc is a resplendent reading of Al lume delle stelle (from the Seventh Book of Madrigals). It is by turns tender and enthusiastic, subdued and dramatic, but always controlled impeccably. The remainder of the program consists of madrigals and sinfonias, all of which follow the pattern of flawless execution, perceptive musicality, and stylistically idiomatic interpretations. Throughout, the recording and mixing is simply exquisite.

This is truly an extraordinary achievement, exactly the way I dream of hearing Monteverdi’s music performed. Alessandrini and Concerto Italiano strike an ideal balance between the restrained and the dramatic. It takes exceptional technical skill and discipline to be free enough to make music this way. One cannot listen to this recording without feeling deep professional respect for Alessandrini and all the musicians. They are fearless, but not foolish, filling the music with all of life’s joys and vicissitudes. These are inspired performances, intelligent and expressive. I will be surprised if this disc does not become a classic in pretty short order.

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