Music Review

With a nod to Cupid, an afternoon of Monteverdi and Shakespeare

By David Perkins
Globe Correspondent / February 16, 2010

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CAMBRIDGE - When Claudio Monteverdi came along at the end of the 17th-century, the Italian madrigal was transformed. A decorative, stylized form became something as real and immediate as the prick of a needle. Dissonances, suspensions, shifts from minor to major, the occasional forbidden interval, and an unpredictable form, all served the emotional urgency of the poetry, which was now, Monteverdi declared, “mistress of the harmony.’’ One has only to think of the opening notes of “Lasciatemi morire,’’ the Monteverdi lament that every voice student is assigned to learn: a simple half step, and a universe of longing.

Laurence Cummings, the British harpsichordist and conductor who has led memorable Handel and Haydn Society performances of “Messiah’’ and Monteverdi’s “Orfeo,’’ returned for a program of Italian and English madrigals from this interesting period. This was Valentine’s Day, and Cummings, acting as musical Cupid, aimed his dart at the many faces and phases of love, disappointed, ecstatic, angry, and obsessive.

The music seemed to be a highly personal selection. There was no grouping by period or nationality (English numbers were all in the second half, but with Gesualdo and more Monteverdi), or an attempt to create a dramatic arc, say, from defended posturing to fulfillment, or betrayal. The opening pieces were taken from Monteverdi’s late collection of 1638, in which he pioneered a style of “agitated’’ music, and were clearly chosen for sonic impact, with six voices and a small ensemble of violins, theorbo, viola da gamba, cello, and organ. (Monteverdi was also an original in providing madrigals with instrumental accompaniment.) In the opening “Altri canti d’Amor,’’ after an instrumental prologue, the singers entered, singing, from different points of the theater, a striking effect.

The singers (Lydia Brotherton, Teresa Wakim, Thea Lobo, Stefan Reed, and Paul Guttry) were drawn from the H&H chorus, and were sometimes joined by Cummings himself, who added a fine tenor while managing the keyboard. The group’s blend of sound, diction, and phrasing was always pleasing and expert. Cummings is not one of those Monteverdians who varies the tempo sharply to imitate speech; his pacing was relaxed, even and gracious, even, at times, at the cost of some of the edginess needed at moments of transition.

In contrast to the music, two actors read several Shakespeare sonnets and a short scene from “The Taming of the Shrew.’’ Lee Aaron Rosen and Nikkole Salter recited them clearly and, as American actors often will, as if they were earnest soul-baring rather than ironic pieces of rhetoric, in iambic pentameter.

The highlight of the afternoon, for these ears, was Monteverdi's "Lamento

della Ninfa," another late piece, in which the solo soprano (Wakim) sings,

in a kind of deaf-wounded call-and-response with a chorus of male voices. More solo pieces would have provided a change of texture, and illustrated where madrigals were heading at the end of this period, toward the solo aria.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a soloist was misidentified in this review. The soloist in Monteverdi’s “Lamento della Ninfa’’ was Teresa Wakim.

Handel and Haydn Society
Conducted by Laurence Cummings
At: Sanders Theatre, Sunday