Monday, December 23, 2002


Madrigali guerrieri ed amorosi

Composer: Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
Ensemble: Concerto Vocale
Conductor: René Jacobs
Performer: John Bowen, Bernarda Fink, Maria Christina Kiehr, Antonio Abete, Victor Torres, et al.
Label: Harmonia Mundi HMC9017367
Released: 4 November, 2002
Number of Discs: 2

Think of musical revolutionaries across the ages and the mind instantly turns (for different reasons) to Bach, Beethoven, Schoenberg, Cage, Messiaen and Boulez. Rarely does the name Claudio Monteverdi crop up. It ought to. Though best known for the Vespers, a glorious collection of devotional music dedicated to Pope Paul V in 1610 (three years before he was made maestro di cappella at St Mark's Church in Venice), Monteverdi’s greatest innovations – alongside motets in ‘modern style’, the seconda prattica – mainly fall into two areas: operas and madrigals.

In many ways ‘Orfeo’ was the first operatic work to really capitalise on the dramatic form we know today. But it was eight varied collections of songs published between 1587 and 1638 (together with a ninth set made available after the composer’s death in 1651) that track Monteverdi’s full musical flowering.

These madrigals of war and love are the passionate culmination of that cycle, which spans both small scale settings and panoramic vocal dramas. They were published five years before Monteverdi died as book eight. Drawing on wide, secular poetic influences like those of Petrarch, Rinnuccini and Tasso, the late madrigals also link into the operatic tradition through the central works in the two main sections : the “Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” and the “Lamento della ninfa”.

These Harmonia Mundi discs combine polished and stylish performances from Concerto Vocale under Rene Jacobs and fine overall production. Bowen and Kiehr are in especially good form. The sound is clear, crisp and well differentiated without losing the natural sensuousness of some of the literary and musical allusions. Thoroughly recommended.

Those who want to know more about the technique behind the music should look out for Eric T Chafe’s ‘Monteverdi’s Tonal Language’. The full settings of book eight are available through Amazon and in good music stores. Harmonia Mundi also have a Monteverdi recorded discography on the web. A good collection of internet resources are to be found on



Album: ‘Sandinista’
Artists: The Clash
LP 1980; CD 4 October, 1999
Number of Discs: 2
Label: Columbia 4953482

In theory The Clash are the apotheosis of a movement that defiantly refused to write or play music proficiently. Nonsense. 'Sandinista' is testimony to the unhinged, witty, rude and wildly inconsistent musicality of political punk at its best. Its grooves hum to the sound of rockabilly, waltz, gospel, dance, jazz, children's ditties, funk, reggae, disco, dub, nifty instrumentals, psychedelia … even a bit of new wave and the odd Clash rock-out! The sad news today of Joe Strummer's death (on 22 December 2002) should be incentive enough to check out his headline band’s most ebullient, defiant recorded statement.

There are some palpably ludicrous and unlistenable things here, of course; but also moments of unalloyed genius suspended in time. My favourites are the more experimental dub and proto-dance tracks. ‘Equaliser’ and ‘Crooked Beat’ are among the standouts, way ahead of their time. No doubt today’s turntablists will be re-mixing them shortly.

Overall it will be impossible for you not to find something you love and something you hate on these CDs. Probably right next door to each other. That's the point. There is no serious attempt at quality control, which makes the overall impact of the album even more surprising. As an answer to the question "what would it sound like to hear The Clash attempting to play in the widest variety of imaginable popular styles?" there can be no doubt that 'Sandinista' is the only possible riposte. It is this that enables it to emerge as a powerful, anti-coherent protest against corporate rock.

The single 'London Calling' (not on here, of course) was a staple at Brixton parties right through to the late '80s and early '90s -- which is the only reason that an arty-farty muso type like me would have come across them. The arrival of a crazily eclectic album of the same name, then its terrible twin, 'Sandinista', signalled the final demise of the dreaded 'party tape'. It simply wasn't needed any more. "Why the hell did you put this garbage on after that last track?", someone would explode in righteous fury to the host... only to discover that the whole deranged thing was one band, one album. Unsurprisingly ‘The Guns of Brixton’ is hidden away at the end of ‘Broadway Song’ Extraordinary.

The Clash imploded in 1985, having outlived most on the original punk scene. Joe Strummer provided soundtracks to Alan Cox’s movie, ‘Walker’ (1988) and American director Jim Jarsmuch’s ‘Mystery Train’ (1989). After a brief stint with The Pogues in 1991 Strummer slipped into obscurity. In 1999 he re-emerged with The Mescaleros, releasing ‘Rock Art & the X-Ray Style’ that year and ‘Global A-Go-Go’ in 2001. Both albums pursue an industrial folk-rooted raucous guitar take on worldbeat trends. One of Strummer’s last gigs was a benefit for the firefighters strike in November 2002.

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