This set consists of two CDs (Amazon B002NVLXE6), one devoted to the four-voice madrigals from Marenzio's "First Book" of 1595, and the second offering those for 5 and 6 voices, with a couple of instrumental arrangements by contemporaries. The producers are aware of the potential for monotony of the material and some of the pieces have a discreet instrumental accompaniment of harp or archlute. With the exception of the bass, "Concerto Italiano" has a completely different vocal line-up for CD 2.
The two Amazon appraisals of the set gave it five twinkles with a somewhat superficial scrutiny. Let's start with the mundane: the booklet is a mixed bag, a brilliant choice of cover image, an anonymous 15th century French vision of the imperial Roman seductress Poppaea Sabina in predictable deshabillé (how on earth the producers got this printed in Malaysia is a mystery!). It is totally apposite for the concealed eroticism of the texts which are provided with French and English translations. The scholarly essays say much about Marenzio's historical importance and about the texts, but little about the actual music - conductor Alessandrini's comment "also noteworthy are the liberal use of dissonance (often without preparation) and the long exhausting strings of sevenths and sixths" draws attention to the boredom quotient of a recital entirely devoted to this repertoire. Naïve pass you a lot of cardboard for your outlay (modest, it has to be said) - the packaging is about as unhelpful as it is possible to be. If you keep your CDs in any sort of tidy, you'll be stuck for somewhere to put it, and it falls apart when you open it. The Italian originals of the essays have been discarded. If you're Italian, Naïve couldn't care less whether you have an introduction to your music.
Alessandrini singles out the 4 part "Tutto `l di piango" as representing the attainment of a specifically madrigal character in Marenzio's hands. He is in fact looking forward to Monteverdi, whereas this setting of a Petrarch sonnet offers a comparison (the only pertinent one feasible in available compilations) with Lassus's version, in a recording by Huelgas-Ensemble under Paul Van Nevel (Amazon B0001WECNI). Van Nevel plays the first 8 lines with a soprano soloist and spinet accompaniment. He then repeats them with the soprano part doubled, and a string trio. The string entry is most effective, and the instruments continue with the soloist in the final six lines. However, I don't know what Lassus's score indicates for this - I suspect it is Van Nevel's decision. The effect is to give the sonnet greater overall weight, and disguise the awkward caesura following line 8, inherent in the sonnet format.
Marenzio has no line 8 break, and ingeniously maintains the same contemplative, resigned tone all the way through. With either setting the problem for the modern listener is that not all of Petrarch's emotional outpourings strike a contemporary chord, and "Tutto `l di piango" is not going to help anyone to go out and score: the unremitting wallowing in self-pity of this sonnet, however well-expressed in music, will cut no ice with the hard-nosed sirens of today. I am all in favour of subtelty in flirtation, and there are certainly ploys here that one could break one's duck with. The seductress on your cover image is there to help you pick them out but you have to be attentive to the language, and have some rapport with the sensitivities of the period. Not everybody is going to have the appropriate empathy.
The commentator for the second CD, Massimo Privitera, singles out "Liquide Perle", immensely popular at the time, as representative of Marenzio's youthful distinctiveness (a lute arrangement follows to demonstrate this). The text is by a Roman church canon known as an antiquarian. Hardly a lovesick swain in the manner of Petrarch - what was he up to? It expresses the exhilaration of initial requitement blighted by an over-eager dénouement. This can be, of course, a serious problem, though today the sentiments might be regarded as exaggerated. The setting matches the text in discreet, well-sustained ambiguity.
The instrumental arrangement for this piece, stated to be for lute, is in fact for duo, harp and archlute. In this format its character is entirely altered: as it becomes a dialogue between the instruments, something not suggested by the original. I am sure there's nothing wrong with this. Indeed, it shows the durability of the music. But it's not what one is given to expect.
Something else that one is not given to expect concerns the build up accorded by Massimo Privitera to Marenzio's 9th Book of Madrigals, culminating in: "the madrigal `Crudele, Acerba, Inesorabile Morte' is performed on the present disc. The music is intense, chromatic, dissonant. Marenzio continually lets the harmonic points of reference slip away until the listener is lost in the dark maze of the mind, where time stands still, where the sense of loss is felt at its purest - indeed it is almost unbearable". I am sure the prospective purchaser who has read this far would like me to comment on this. Unfortunately I can't. At least, not in this review, as it is not performed on this disc. In fact I cannot find any trace of a CD version of it by this group at all.
This rather takes the wind out of my sails and shows the production standards to be sloppy, verging on the dishonest. The defaulting CD was made 13 years ago, so maybe it is a bit late to complain. I have asked both Naïve and Amazon for an explanation and have received no response. Until this is forthcoming, this issue gets a single star. It should not damn the whole set of course: the repertoire is great fun to sing and, if you have done so, you will get much satisfaction from the technical aspects of the collection (as also with Van Nevel, of course). Although the music is evenly distributed, the soprano (the ubiquitous Rossana Bertini) in the 4-part madrigals has a recognisable personality, which enables one to keep track of the text. What the lapse also shows is that no listener, apparently, has bothered to follow the madrigals from the texts, so you can take the pious sentiments of the other reviews with a measure of scepticism. Wake up, everybody!