I heard I Fagiolini in concert online on 8/10/20 (the concert was live on 8/8/20, part of the VOCES8 Live From London concert series. They’re a group with six singers and two instrumentalists, chitarrone (a guitar-like instrument most similar to a theorbo) and organ. Their director and organist is Robert Hollingworth.
The concert was preceded by a conversation between Hollingworth and Tim Vaughan (assistant producer for VOCES8), talking about what makes Monteverdi great. I've listed the full program below, it was an all-Monteverdi program.
The first piece, "Sfogava con le stelle," was exciting right off, because it showed off the slightly rough-hewn sound of the group. Not sloppy, but not the pristine, laser-sharp sound you get from groups in the English tradition (like VOCES8, which I heard a few days before in this series). It seemed that I Fagiolini puts expression above precision, which is a welcome change.
The third piece, “Anima mia, perdona” was thrilling in its wild virtuosity, the three singers going all out with the throaty articulation and singing full out, the high baritone at one point bending his knees to aid him getting to the apex of a phrase. That was cute.
A couple of other notes about the visual experience of watching the group perform. They gave the impression of having fun. They performed with gusto, and who doesn’t like a little gusto? And as a sign of the times, the woman playing the chitarrone was wearing a mask.
They did two sacred pieces next, and I was surprised to hear them singing with that somewhat hooty, clean, proper English sound, with none of the rough-hewn jazz I had so loved earlier in the concert.
Hollingworth introduced "Zefiro torna" by saying he had been obsessed with the piece when he was a teenager. It's written for two tenors, singing about the cool western wind, hurling wildly virtuosic vocalization at each other. The underlying harmonies are the same ordinary chords over and over, the interest is in the vocal lines, which are thrilling. Then late in the piece, Monteverdi puts on the brakes at a turning point in the sonnet - - they've been singing all this poetic language about the western wind, but suddenly they say (I'm paraphrasing), "But I am alone, I am in love, I am in torment."
Hollingworth said there was a harmonic shift that caused a scandal at the time and he said we wouldn't need flashing lights to tell when it happened. We would recognize it because all of our bones would dissolve in our bodies. Well, it didn't quite do THAT but it was pretty astonishing. Here's the actual performance from London - - the bone-dissolving phrase starts at 5:04 with the actual dissolve at 5:14:
"Ohimè il bel viso" was ravishing. It starts with three men singing the primary musical content and two sopranos chiming in with the occaional, "Alas!" Eventually this developed into a typical five-part contrapuntal texture.
"Lamento della ninfa" put the spotlight on one of the two sopranos in the group, who sang with a disarming drama. I was a little suprised to see she was barefoot but then saw why: she walked across the stage with the men calling after her, she was portraying the nymph of the title. This bit of staging was a nice change, and reminded us that Monteverdi was one of the pioneers in opera.
The final piece, "Rimanti in pace," started off sounding like a standard issue, beautiful Italian madrigal but Monteverdi does some startling things with the harmonies and abrupt changes in texture.
One of the tenors sang a solo as an encore, "In dolce tormento." It seemed a little odd that a vocal ensemble would close with a solo, but it was very beautiful.
There were a few post-show bits, starting with an annoying ad for a VOCES8 series of classes. It seemed a little tacky that they're promoting their own products this way, but hey, they're the producers of the series, I guess they can do what they want, and they're not hawking The Garden Weasel.
One of the post-show bits was a short film by I Fagiolini, "Le Zoom," a four-screen Zoom performance of a piece by Milhaud. Silly, but well done. It was part of a triple bill of short films, *Not In This Together:*
Sfogava con le stelle (Fourth book of madrigals, 1603)
Duo seraphim (1610 Vespers)
Anima mia, perdona (Fourth book of madrigals, 1603)
Vorrei baciarti (Concerto, Seventh book of madrigals, 1619)
Felle Amaro (Coppini, [Contrafactum of ’Cruda Amarilli, 1605] 1607)
Adoramus te (Bianchi, Libro Primo, 1620)
Zefiro torna (Scherzi Musicale, 1632)
Ohimè il bel viso (Sixth book of madrigals, 1614)
Lamento della ninfa (Madrigali Amorosi, 1638)
Rimanti in pace (Third book of madrigals, 1592)