A program ripe with Monteverdi melancholy, The Grand Madrigals was nevertheless a triumphant conclusion to the 2017 Ludovico’s Band season, which was devoted to the Baroque master. In partnership with The Consort of Melbourne, the ensemble delivered an hour of (mostly) splendid musicianship in the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Salon. The program draws on Monteverdi’s various compositions for a 1608 Mantua wedding, starting with Lamento d’Arianna. The only excerpt to survive from his opera L’Arianna – fortunately Monteverdi published it in several forms, including as a madrigal – this spurned lover’s suicidal dirge is an odd choice for nuptial celebrations!
Six members of the Consort, conducted by director Steven Hodgson, revealed its dark beauty and emotion. Three male and three female voices wove a gorgeous melodic tapestry, notable for the complex vocal lines’ cohesion, sensitive dynamics (Dove è la fede’s diminuendo was exquisite), and some lovely ringing soprano. With gentle, unobtrusive perfection, the singers were accompanied by Marshall McGuire on triple harp and Samantha Cohen’s theorbo.
Strangely, they were the only actual members of Ludovico’s Band to appear, as McGuire and Cohen were joined by several guest musicians for the second work, including David Macfarlane on harpsichord. Il ballo delle ingrate in genere representativo (the ballet of the ungrateful ladies) is not nearly as bleak as Lamento d’Arianna, but this finger-wag at ladies who scorn their admirers is another curious wedding selection. Cupid complains to his mother Venus that his arrows are having no effect. They implore Pluto to intervene. As a lesson to the audience, he reveals the ungrateful ladies condemned to the Underworld.
Katherine Norman (Cupid) was slightly wobbly at times – perhaps she is unused to singing solo, and arguably none of the Consort sang as well alone as they did as a unified force for the lament. Kristy Biber (Venus) revealed a sweet soprano, and Jerzy Kozlowski (Pluto) a robust bass brightened by some remarkably light, well controlled top notes. A very experienced opera singer, he threw a few grimaces and gestures into an otherwise visually undramatic concert performance. Guest soloist Leonie Thomson’s ungrateful lady brought the concert to a close with another lament. Her pure soprano, dipping into bittersweet mezzo tones, once again revealed the beauty of Monteverdi’s moody meditations on love.
The band’s majestic accompaniment became a sumptuous golden cloud of bowed, plucked and struck strings during two intermezzo. These opportunities to really shine were slightly marred by some occasional ragged violin, but for the most part The Grand Madrigals was another delightful Baroque showcase by Ludovico’s Band (or part thereof!).
During the pause between these two works, McGuire, in his usual affable style, not only provided a little background about Il ballo, but also some news of note. Ludovico’s Band will move upstairs to the MRC’s main auditorium for the 2018 season – a welcome indication that the ensemble is enjoying sell-out success. The Elisabeth Murdoch Hall will further enhance their glorious sound … though I’m slightly sad to think that not only was this concert their farewell to Monteverdi (for now, one hopes), but also to their intimate performances in the Salon, which had an air both of rarity and conviviality.
Editor’s note: Reviewer Patricia Maunder recently filed this story, the last review of concerts given by Ludovico’s Band in 2017.