Orazio Vecchi was a 16th century cleric, an agile musical wit and an innovator with an ear for the ridiculous, whose cycles of madrigals are chiefly noted by music historians in connection with the imminent emergence of 17th century opera.
Yet, as this presentation of his three-part madrigal cycle Le Veglie di Siena showed, the connection with opera is somewhat misleading.
His music is more about companionable music-making than theatre. "Veglie" is difficult to translate but implies an activity for night owls when others are asleep. In this case it comprises three cycles of madrigals describing musical games, the first a series of musical caricatures in which singers are invited to imitate different nationalities or types – a Sicilian, a country girl, a German and so forth.
The second cycle begins with an onomatopoeic description of a hunt for Cupid which (puzzlingly for Cupid) involved gratuitous dog and trumpet imitations, leading to a tongue twister game by way of close.
The third cycle was musically the most interesting and developed, an exploration of the "humours" or expressive moods of "modern music" – the grave humour, the cheerful humour – extending to 12 madrigals in all. The result was a catalogue of expressive tropes at the crucial moment between the Renaissance and Baroque.
At this time, through composers such as Monteverdi, music developed a refined capacity for the sophisticated expression of a wide range of feeling with corresponding refinements of harmony and texture.
Particularly interesting were the slower, more expressive pieces - the grave humour in the style of a lament, the doleful humour, and the melancholic humour, the last two exploring chromatic harmony.
But the cycle also had moments of caressing gentleness, playfulness and a lively joyous piece with buoyant rhythms to close.
Lutenist Simone Vallerotonda provided quiet accompaniments and interludes, freshening the texture with discreet, spontaneous flourishes. The first two cycles in the first half were presented with unpretentious stage nonsense, but it was in the second half that Roland Peelman and the Song Company found their characteristic masterly tonal balance, precision and expressive suppleness. Intriguing and esoteric activities for night owls.