"Is it music or just a bit weird?" Robert Hollingworth, director of Baroque vocal specialists I Fagiolini, was posing the question of Gesualdo, the infamous oddball composer of the late 16th century - a sort of musical Caravaggio - whose capricious way with just about every aspect of composition (and social norms: he was a murderer) made him a poster boy for the 20th century. It's a question, however, that could quite easily apply to any great pioneer. The best music is always on the cusp of making no sense at all. And therefore it could also apply to much of the Lufthansa Baroque Festival this year, which focuses on the great Italian game-changers of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Yesterday the is-it-music-or-just-a-bit-weird focus was on the Italian madrigalists and Domenico Scarlatti.
Harpsichordist Pierre Hantaï weirded the Neapolitan composer up no end in yesterday afternoon's recital at St Peter's, Eaton Square. One spends so much time listening to a Scarlatti smoothed out or pumped up on piano or close-microphoned harpsichord that one forgets how basic and rough-hewn he can be live and uncut. Had Hantaï turned to the crowd and admitted that he had, in fact, not been playing the harpsichord at all that past hour but had merely been jangling his car keys, I wouldn't have batted an eyelid. It's what one always hopes for from Scarlatti: an unfeasibly raucous, messy, unchecked crash of sound and colour. Strap a pair of skates onto a Neapolitan tune, fling it off a cliff and you've got a Scarlatti sonata.
Hantaï revelled in the vertiginous collisions. His selection of 16, which included the Sonata in A Major, Kk457, and E flat major, Kk253, was heavy on dissonance. Hantaï packed in as many tart appoggiaturas and acciaccaturas as he could, emphasising the abrasive unfriendliness of it all. In the slower sonatas and the melodic lines - where an abrasive rudeness would not have worked - Hantaï seemed a little lost. All too often there seemed to be a limit to Hantaï's willingness to manipulate these works for greater emotional depths, which meant weirdness predominated over sense.
Over at St John's, Smith Square, Hollingworth was giving us a masterclass on the madrigal, the 16th century secular form par excellence, and its relationship to the birth of opera, which was as intellectually stimulating as it was musically invigorating. The shift from the one form to the other marks the move from what art historian Michael Fried called absorption to theatricality. The madrigals of de Rore, de Wert, Gesualdo and Marenzio need no listener to complete their drama. They exist as intensely dark, dense entities, four, five, sometimes six singers declaiming, then breaking off, then weaving a counterpoint like electrons around an unbreakable poetic nucleus. Conversely, in Monteverdi's opera Orfeo, of which we were given the Messenger Scene from the Second Act, and his masque-like semi-drama, Ballo delle ingrate, we became the nucleus as the singers literally walked and sung around us, involving us, engaging us and pleading with us for their cause.
In the end, it was the absorbing intensity of the madrigals and I Fagiolini's ensemble singing that won the day. It was a shame that we didn't get more of it to be honest. What we did get, however, whether it was the intense schizophrenia of de Rorre's Mia benigna fortuna e'l viver lieto, the low, marbled textures of de Wert's Giunto a la tomba, ove al suo spirto vivo or a setting of Moro, lasso, al mio duolo by Gesualdo, in which the exceptional soprano, Anna Crookes, ornaments herself free of her colleagues, was a joy. Less of a joy was the shift into theatricality. As individuals, I Fagiolini lack a dramatic presence that they exude when tied together in ensemble. And ultimately one was left looking to the sparky string quintet of the Barokksolistene, and their swashbuckling, Errol Flyn-like runs and turns, for some starry, show-offy theatrical swagger.