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The Italian Renaissance madrigal has long been the poor cousin to the sacred music of the period in terms of appearances on disc; furthermore, for many years the only serious practitioners of the art were not any ensemble of native speakers, but a group from these shores – namely, the Consort of Musicke under the direction of Anthony Rooley, whose recordings of the works of Monteverdi, Wert, D’India, and many other famous and not-so-famous names were until the 1990s the only comprehensive surveys of this repertoire.

Towards the end of that decade, things began to change quickly when several Italian ensembles began recording large swathes of the Italian madrigal repertory: Delitiæ Musicæ, directed by Marco Longhini, completed sets of the madrigals of Monteverdi and Gesualdo for Naxos, while Rinaldo Alessandrini’s Concerto Italiano also recorded all of Monteverdi’s madrigals, as well as many other important works (their disc of a selection of Marenzio’s madrigals is still, in my opinion, one of the best madrigal albums ever made).

The countertenor Claudio Cavina sang on several of Concerto Italiano’s recordings before founding his own ensemble, La Venexiana, and between 1998 and 2006 they too committed all of Monteverdi’s madrigals to disc. I remember raving over nearly every release as it appeared, finding in their performances not only an infinitely subtle palette of colours and shades, but also a nonchalant yet highly characterised delivery of the texts that only an ensemble of Italian-speakers could produce.

While I still treasure performances by other groups of individual pieces – Book Six’s Sestina as sung by the Consort of Musicke and also in a remarkable early recording by the Monterverdi Choir; or Tragicomedia’s stunning disc of madrigali concertati – La Venexiana’s complete set is far and away the best currently available. An added bonus is a live recording of a 2002 concert from Corsica, which covers a broad selection from nearly every book. Don’t hesitate to snap up this limited editon box-set from Glossa – one of the most important Monteverdi releases of recent years.

Adrian Horsewood Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Early Music Today, 2014 - ©Rhinegold Publishing