Unsolicited musical review: Exaudi at Wigmore Hall

Exaudi is a choral group founded by James Weeks and Juliet Fraser ten years ago to perform the choral compositions of contemporary composers. It’s been a lively and successful ten years, so to celebrate, they had their tenth anniversary concert this evening at Wigmore Hall, and what an evening it was. They concentrate on contemporary composers, as said, but in the past have veered off into madrigal territory, particularly Monteverdi and Gesualdo, those stalwarts of madrigal composition. This is not unusual—20th century composers such as Stravinsky and, in particular, Schoenberg spent considerable time and effort coming to grips with Renaissance polyphony, particularly the later madrigals of Gesualdo, and this attention continues into this century as well.

(Full disclosure—I sang for James Weeks for about a year and a half before he left conducting the good old Orlando Chamber Choir to move north to Newcastle. Therefore, I’m predisposed to give a positive spin to all this. So shoot me.)

This evening’s concert illustrates why. Not only have madrigal composers such as Monteverdi and Gesualdo contributed some of the most glorious pieces of choral music ever written to the western canon, and not only have they, from time to time, inspired other composers through the centuries—they’re still inspiring them today. This evening’s performance consisted not only of some of Monteverdi’s and Gesualdo’s loveliest and most emotional madrigals, it also presented madrigal compositions from five contemporary composers, four of them commissioned for this evening’s event. And the form is alive and well. It has morphed into the 21st century, and the wide range of compositional styles of current music—but they’re still madrigals.
Just what makes a song a madrigal? First, it’s a secular song, usually a choral piece, although occasionally one comes across a madrigal for a solo voice. Usually, they’re sung a capella (although the solo pieces are often accompanied), by anywhere from two to eight singers. Most importantly, the form of the madrigal is what’s called “through-composed”—each line may be different, with each line mirroring or amplifying the text, down to individual words, if need be. And the text is critical—when madrigals first emerged, this emergence was part of a broader process of humanistic thinking, embodied in the writings of Erasmus and, critically for Italian madrigal composers, Petrarch. Many of the madrigal pieces of the late Italian Renaissance were poems by Petrarch, Tasso, or other Italian poets—but Petrarch was the ideal. Petrarch’s sonnets were highly regarded as exemplars of deep emotion, and if the madrigal form stood for anything, is was putting emotion into music. This is some of the most emotional music ever composed.

So this evening we had a full range—Monteverdi madrigals mostly from his Third Book of Madrigals, published when Monteverdi was 25 in 1592, and Gesualdo later madrigals (from Books Five and Six), which were probably composed around he same time but not published until 1611. (Gesualdo had one of the most interesting, if not outright bizarre, lives of any composer of any time—see Glen Watkins’ The Gesualdo Hex: Music, Myth, Memory for an interesting biography and musical appreciation of Gesualdo.) Gesualdo, while a composer of his time, often sounds, as James Weeks notes in his program notes, entirely his own, composing “music that has wandered so far from the outside world…that these books seem like alien airs from another planet.” So we were treated with some glorious old chestnuts: Monteverdi’s paeans to desire, Sovre tenere erbette and the glorious Rimante in pace; his sardonic twist on desire, Io mi son giovinette; and the tragic Vattene pur, crudel; and from Gesualdo, pretty much all doom and gloom, which is what one would expect—Merce! grido piagendo, Asciugatei begli occhi, and Languisce al fin, although these were partially offset by the more lively and humorous Ardita zanaretta, dedicated to a gnat who will get to expire between his lover’s “fair bosom.” Classics all.

The modern pieces were more varied, but all adhered to the madrigal form as outlined above. Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino’s Tre madrigal (2008) were based on some haiku of the 17th century Japanese poet Basho; Larry Groves gave us Sherpa Tensing stands up from the piano, says something quiet, and walks outside, a piece that did, in fact, include a refrain, and is clearly part of a longer work that has the potential to be equal parts bafflement and humour, based on the poetry of Matthew Welton; Christian Wolff brings us pieces of ordinary life, based on the poetry of John Ashbery; Morgan Hayes’ E vesuvio monte provided a lively re-enactment of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius as witnessed by Pliny the Elder; Evan Johnson gave us one of the quietest pieces I have ever heard, snatches of a series of musical conversations, sadly interrupted by some dim bulb’s mobile phone going off; and Michael Finnessey contributed a wonderful example of dueling madrigal choirs, in this case one singing something that sounds a whole lot like Gesualdo, and a second choir swooping around with amplifications of the first choir. All of it interesting, and much of it delightful.

All this was a pretty good representation, whether by design or by accident, of some modern compositional techniques, and why audiences (although not this particular audience) get flustered when hearing some contemporary music. In this context, all the pieces worked, because they were all anchored in a particular musical tradition. Exaudi has, in fact, begun what will hopefully become a longer term project, getting more composers to bring us more Italian madrigals—they’ve started the Exaudi Itlalian Madrigal Book, and hope to be adding to it over the years. This is wildly ambitious, of course, but is so obvious one has to wonder why no one has come up with this concept before. I’ll be following with this interest.

Oh, yes. The concert was superb, particularly the interplay between the two sopranos, Fraser and Amy Moore. Exaudi could clearly become one of the three or four best early music groups in London (and, therefore, the world) if they were to decide to concentrate on Renaissance polyphony. Sadly, or happily, depending on your point of view, they show no signs of doing any such thing, but rather seem set to continue their current mission of presenting contemporary vocal composers. But I hope they also continue to pursue the kind of linkages they explored this evening. I notice that one of their forthcoming concerts, in Amsterdam in November, will be music by John Cage and Guillaume de Machaut—composers separated by nearly 700 years. That’s the spirit. More please.

The above stamp honoring Claudio Monteverdi was issued by Germany in 1993.