CD review: Monteverdi Madrigals from Les Arts Florissants

First published in the Guardian on 19 June, 2015

What was it with Cremona? The great luthiers Amati, Guarnari and Stradivari all had their shops in the sleepy Lombardy town. Claudio Monteverdi was born there in 1567, and although he was eventually lured away by the brighter lights of Mantua, Rome and Venice, his auspicious early works were all crafted at home. Paul Agnew and his stylish baroque ensemble Les Arts Florissants are currently performing Monteverdi’s complete madrigals — eight miraculous books spanning the composer’s career; Agnew calls them Monteverdi’s musical autobiography. They’re recording them, too, though not comprehensively or chronologically. More interestingly, they’re grouping according to city. Volume 2 was released last year, a lens into Monteverdi’s Mantua years. Now Cremona dips into Books 1-3 to show a ballsy young composer flexing his muscles, breathlessly setting love poems, brimming with clever tricks. Les Arts capture all the exuberant invention. Their delivery is fresh and colloquial, like animated conversation between friends. The vocal blend isn’t smooth — the character of each singer shines through, and the result is all the more colourful for it.