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Divine Theatre

Excellent review of Divine Theatre from Australia

Tony Way, Limelight (4 August, 2017)

In his day, Giaches de Wert (1535-96) was the foremost composer of madrigals, most notably serving in the musically progressive Gonzaga court at Mantua and influencing the young Monteverdi. He had a considerable 12 books of madrigals to his name. What is less well known is that he also produced three books of motets which also display his madrigalian prowess. Many of the texts he set were not standard liturgical texts, but rather biblical stories that lent themselves to more programmatic treatment.

Wert’s music was not the only colourful aspect of his life. Early on he married Lucrezia Gonzaga and produced at least six children. His appointment to Mantua was full of intrigue: several moves were made to discredit him, but he stuck to his work, despite being labelled a cuckold. (His wife had been having an affair with the composer who was passed over for Wert’s job.) Lucrezia came to a sticky end some years later when she was involved in a murderous plot to seize a noble title. Wert eventually had an affair of his own, with the widowed noblewoman and poet, Tarquinia Molza. Such was Wert’s musical worth that when this scandal was discovered, Tarquinia was banished but Wert remained employed.

Such a dramatic personal life no doubt intensified Wert’s empathy with the world of human emotions that he then so eloquently celebrated in the madrigal. The works on this disc could well be called “sacred madrigals” and are really no less dramatic than their secular counterparts. Stile Antico are the perfect artists for this repertory, bringing equal measures of clarity and passion to the music, as they did to their award-winning 2010 recording of John Sheppard’s Media Vita (a particular favourite of mine).

Amongst the many highlights of the programme is the plangent Vox in Rama Audita Est, which hauntingly evokes Rachel crying for her lost children with descending and ascending chromaticism. Another is the amazingly descriptive masterpiece, Ascendente Jesu in Naviculum that narrates the story of Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee, from Jesus getting into the boat, falling asleep, the mounting waves, the cries for help and the eventual calm. All of this is rendered by the singers with great aplomb.

Like this composer, these wonderful works deserve to be much better known and more widely performed. How fortunate to have this fine recording. More please!