Philadelphia Inquirer REVIEW: David Stearns

Les Canards Chantants and Acronym bring unknown madrigals out of obscurity

By David Patrick Stearns, CLASSICAL MUSIC CRITIC

POSTED: February 16, 2016

Les Canards Chantants, the Philadelphia area's newest early-music vocal ensemble, collaborates constantly - this time with instrumental group Acronym in a concert of unknown madrigals heard after 400 years of confounding obscurity.

Aimez-vous Giovanni Valentini (1582-1649)?

You would after the Saturday program at the Glencairn Museum in Bryn Athyn. The madrigals are having their modern premieres in a brief tour that started in New York and ends at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Taplin Auditorium in Princeton.

Historically, the madrigals were the first published with sophisticated instrumental parts. On a musical and emotional level, the pieces were the work of a major personality - stimulating, affecting and surprisingly modern.

The Venice-born, Vienna-based Valentini was one of the most successful composers of his day, and also among the most restless. None of the seven madrigals behaved the same way. The first, "See Cloudless May," had the voices ricocheting in numerous directions in a chipper evocation of spring. "These Tears of Mine" was a labyrinth in which every voice had its own journey through darkness, somehow arriving at the same end point at the same time.

"Extinguished in my heart" had a highly charged, almost operatic relationship between music and words that rivaled Valentini's contemporary Monteverdi. "Who Feeds Your Hopes" had the voices divided into sections, often in competition, and then converging with escalating emotional effect.

Interspersed between the vocal works were instrumental sonatas played by the rich-textured 12-member Acronym, which employs a lirone - a seldom-seen missing link between the cello and 12-string guitar. Some of the sonatas had three distinct sections that would become standard 100 years later. One used a fugal counterpoint based on dark, minor-mode descending scales suggesting British composer John Dowland on the verge of suicide.

Of course, this richness wouldn't be apparent without sympathetic, well-played performances from Acronym, whose live performances were more emotionally charged than on its new Valentini album,Oddities & Trifles. The six-voice Canards are highly animated performers, playing off of each other with visual theatricality that bordered on mugging, but never at the expense of elegant vocalism.

And what could be a better setting than the Glencairn Museum with its sumptuously archaic decor?