During his introduction to this small but perfectly formed exploration of the works of early c.17th madrigalist, John Wilbye, our host, Robert Hollingworth, alluded to the fact that the English madrigal gets a bad rap. They were written for domestic consumption and, consequently, we do not tend to view them as music to sit down and listen to. However, this does serious injustice to the exquisitely shaped performance given by I Fagiolini, proving these works to be complex, imaginative and highly expressive.
Another barrier to our enjoyment of this music is the poetry, because it is largely set in a fantastical world of nymphs and swains running hither and thither over antique landscapes, and ladies of a deadly beauty shooting fatal darts from out their eyes while love hangs, precariously and panting, on their lips.
Indeed, the lyrics can seem absurd and irrelevant. But this is to misunderstand the chivalric and pastoral traditions from which these texts derive. The mythological setting allowed the poets a kind of genre shorthand; a bridge to their audiences via which they explore very real emotional and, indeed, philosophical questions. This was, after all, the era of the metaphysical poets.
Wilbye’s music responds directly to the emotional and human truths which lie embedded in the arcane imagery, and I Fagiolini’s performances of Wilbye’s madrigals pay as much attention to the text and the storytelling as the music. This concert came as a real revelation of just how rich and expressive these miniature marvels can be.
The level of detail is incredible and the generous shared understanding between the singers results in a flawless ensemble. To hear a phrase sung with beautiful shaping and exquisite pointing is one thing; to then hear it tossed through the texture, from voice to voice, and in a complex contrapuntal cascade, with exactly the same kind of shaping and pointing by all, is on another level of musicality entirely.
This was a short, late evening of many moods, from the exquisite melancholy of Weep, O Mine Eyes, to the breathless, frolicsome opening of Sweet honey-sucking bees. At each turn the singers created just the right atmosphere and mood. The result was truly magical and certainly opened our eyes & ears to the real stature of this music.
I Fagiolini, Robert Hollingworth – Musical Director