An Elizabethan cookbook on display at the Folger Shakespeare Library tells us to take one capon and a veal shank and cook till "half-boiled." Modern cooks who confront this kind of enigmatic instruction can sympathize with performers who undertake the music of the same period. Much is assumed, and the words--or notes--on the page make sense only within a living tradition that is, in many ways, no longer living.

The Folger Consort attempted to bring some of the Renaissance musical tradition back to life last evening, in a program of 16th-century Italian madrigals given at the Shakespeare Theatre. The program will be repeated this evening and twice tomorrow. The consort has put together a chronological overview of the madrigal, beginning with the fluid beauties of the early 16th century and culminating with music of Monteverdi and contemporaries from the turn of the 17th century and beyond. It is devoted mostly to madrigals in the limited sense of the term, smallish vocal works that take their texts very seriously (even when lighthearted) and emphasize imitative and expressive effects. One hears the madrigal, as such, materialize out of more purely songlike forms, flirt with contrapuntal complexity and culminate in an almost expressionistic density. The only thing to regret about this well-chosen and well-laid-out evening is that it gives us nothing of the bizarre mannerism into which the form evolved. Something by Gesualdo might have put a nice bookend on this century-long tour and emphasized the stark contrasts of the form.

The Folger Consort, composed last night of five excellent singers and four versatile instrumentalists, takes a smooth and liquid approach to performance. Even in the chromatic irruptions of Monteverdi or the instrumental experiments of Banchieri, the consort tends to smooth things over. It makes a pleasant contrast to Renaissance ensembles that exploit the oddities of this music, the interruptions, changes of direction and the, at times, almost violent virtuosity.

But the musicians also kept their heads buried in the music most of the evening, leaving much of the poetic spontaneity and dramatic interaction to be guessed at. There was a sense that the music was performed by very dexterous, but perhaps not quite fully rehearsed, players. That sense became manifest in some suspicious hesitancy in Cipriano de Rore's "Dalle belle contrade."

Still, as a two-hour lesson about a complex--but omnipresent--musical form, the evening is well worth attending. The challenge, perhaps, is to decide whether this music and poetry (with its genuine and recycled trecento imagery) is to be heard as decidedly foreign to our times, or distant but of a piece with the modern age. Much of the poetry suggests forms of erotic intellectualizing that can seem cold and evasive--the standard sexless sex imagery of pastorale and mythological texts or the equal-opportunity sycophancy of works like Marenzio's "Real natura, angelico intelletto" (an all-purpose wedding madrigal). And yet there are explosively sensual works such as Willaert's "Un giorno mi prego una vedovella," sufficiently pornographic in its coy way to make even late-20th-century swingers blush a little.

It is a world that offers no clear bearings to someone steeped in the hyper-polite, down-to-earth sexual negotiations of our day. No mention of money--or prenups either.

Highlights of the evening include a solo instrumental work for gamba by Ganassi, performed with poetic simplicity by Margriet Tindemans, three unaccompanied madrigals by Monteverdi that showcase the well-balanced vocalists, some very virtuosic recorder playing by Scott Reiss (in many ways the presiding spirit of animation among the instrumentalists) and two sublime works by Rore. Placed where they are, these madrigals underscore Rore as one of the great geniuses of the era. Hearing genius in the context of the merely fluent is a valuable lesson indeed.