REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Monteverdi String Quartet, NCEM, York

Monteverdi String Quartet: The Madrigal Re-imagined

York Early Music Festival, Monteverdi String Quartet, National Centre for Early Music, York, July 12

AFTER many tribulations, including the exit of several foreign groups and the ‘pinging’ of star performer Rachel Podger into self-isolation, the festival has finally re-opened its doors to live audiences, albeit slimmed down to four days. We must be grateful for small mercies.

The Monteverdi String Band’s hip-sounding monicker cloaks a Mozart-style string quintet, although with gut strings and Mark Caudle’s cello-lookalike bass violin as the lowest voice. On this occasion they were joined by soprano Hannah Ely and by Toby Carr, alternating on lute and theorbo. Their topic was The Madrigal Re-imagined.

The madrigal’s roots lie in 14th century Italian poetry and it has always been associated with voices, at least in this country. But in Italy about 1600 instrumentalists, no doubt envious, began to copy and elaborate on what voices had previously monopolised. Hence this programme. As in so much else, Monteverdi was at the forefront here.

We were offered his version for strings of Cruda Amaryllis. The strings danced with greater urgency in extracts from his Il Ballo dell’Ingrate, where Hannah Ely gave us a tasty reminder (from its finale) of what voices were still allowed. The programme ended with a meaty chunk of Monteverdi’s masterpiece Orfeo. Here it was possible to hear how keenly voice and strings were interlinked in their explorations of Striggio’s poetry.

In between, there were glimpses of other composers, notably Palestrina, in two ‘diminutions’ (elaborations) devised by MSB’s leader, Oliver Webber. In the second, his violin became ever more frenetic in its ornaments beyond, indeed, what any voice could have hoped to achieve. The strings were superbly balanced in ensemble, firmly underpinned by Caudle’s bass line.

Toby Law was graceful in his continuo role, and even contributed a Prelude of his own in 16th century style. A handful of contemporary texts were less successful, conversational rather than properly projected. But they hardly detracted from a stimulating evening.

Review by Martin Dreyer

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