musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567 - 1643): Vespro della Beata Vergine

[I] Vespro della Beata Vergine
Alena Dantcheva, Natasha Schnur, soprano; Ophelia Klumpp, contralto; Andrea Gavagnin, alto; Jakob Pilgram, Michael Römer, Dávid Szigetvári, Johannes Weiss, tenor; Lisandro Abadie, Geoffroy Buffière, bass
Il Gusto Barocco - Stuttgarter Barockorchester
Dir: Jörg Halubek
rec: June 14 - 16, 2019, Mannheim, St. Johannis-Kirche
CPO - 555 314-2 (© 2020) (79'54")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

Andrea Inghisciano, David Brutti, Tiago Simas Freire, recorder, cornett; Julia Fischer, Sabine Gassner, Bernd Ibele, Felix Schlüter, sackbut; Anaïs Chen, Prisca Stalmarski, violin; Amélie Chemin, viola da gamba, lirone; Alexander Jellici, cello; Chiara Granata, harp; David Bergmüller, Daniele Caminiti, Simon Linné, lute; Alexander Gergelyfi, organ

[II] "Vespro"
La Tempête
Dir: Simon-Pierre Bestion
rec: Nov 2018, Paris, Notre Dame du Liban
Alpha - 552 (© 2019) (2.22'07")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Claire Lefilliâtre, soprano; Fiona McGown, mezzo-soprano; Eugénie De Mey, contralto; Francisco Mañalich, Sébastien Obrecht, Pierre-Antoine Chaumien, tenor; Arnaud Richard, Renaud Bres, bass
Alice Kamenezky, Annabelle Bayet, Cécile Banquey, Clémence Garcia, Ellen Giacone, Floriane Hasler, Lucie Niquet-Rioux, Véronique Housseau, soprano; Axelle Verner, Clothilde Cantau, Laure Ilef, Mathilde Gatouillat, contralto; Edouard Monjanel, Fabrice Foison, Gabriel Colin, Maurizio Rossano, Richard Golian, Samuel Zattoni-Rouffy, Thibaut Jacqmin, Vivien Simon, tenor; Arthur Cady, Eudes Peyre, Florent Martin, Jean-Christophe Brizard, Nicolas Josserand, bass
Benoît Tainturier, recorder, cornett; Emmanuel Mûre, trumpet, cornett; Krzysztof Lewandowski, recorder, cornett, cervelas; Lucile Tessier, recorder, dulcian; Volny Hostiou, serpent; Abel Rohrbach, Alexis Lahens, Olivier Dubois, sackbut; David Wish, Camille Aubret, violin; Camille Rancière, viola; Robin Pharo, Julie Dessaint, Nolwenn Le Guern, viola da gamba; Youen Cadiou, Adrin Alix, double bass; Bérengère Sardin, Caroline Lieby, harp; Pierre Rinderknecht, Marie Langlet, theorbo, guitar; Loris Barrucand, harpsichord; Mathieu Valfré, organ

Since it was rediscovered in the wake of the revival of early music and the emergence of historical performance practice, Claudio Monteverdi's Vespro della Beata Vergine has never stopped to fascinate performers and music audiences alike. It is generally considered one of the great monuments of vocal music in history, comparable in status with Bach's Passions and B minor Mass, Handel's Messiah and Mozart's Requiem. No wonder that the list of available recordings is impressive. There are many differences between them, and that has everything to do with the many mysteries surrounding this work. Every performer has to deal with a number of issues, and has to find solutions to problems which will probably never been solved once and for all.

A number of these issues are summarized by Monteverdi scholar Silke Leopold in the liner-notes to Jörg Halubek's recording for CPO. In contrast, they are almost completely ignored in the interview with Simon-Pierre Bestion in the booklet to his recording, released by Alpha. That is less surprising than it seems, as he has basically arranged Monteverdi's masterpiece, in order to create a concept of his own. More about that later. Musically speaking, the two recordings could hardly be more different. Whereas Halubek confines himself to the pieces which Monteverdi published in 1610, Bestion puts them into a liturgical context, without exactly making clear what kind of liturgy he has in mind. After all, one of the reasons that many performers in our time decide against a liturgical context, is that it is basically impossible to find a liturgical framework, in which every piece from the 1610 collection can find its natural place. It is even questionable whether Monteverdi had a complete performance in mind. Halubek, in his notes to his interpretation, states that "[what] is conveyed while leafing through the partbooks is not music intended for an uninterrupted cyclical performance, primarily because the part assignments frequently change or the necessary practical indications referring to the sequence in 'silent voices' are lacking". Moreover, as Silke Leopold mentions, only the basso continuo partbook has the title of Vespro della Beata Vergine.

There are also many differences between performers with regard to the number of singers involved, and the frequency of instrumental participation. As far as the latter aspect is concerned, only in a few pieces Monteverdi specifically requires the involvement of instruments. Some performers use this as an argument to confine themselves to the accompaniment of the basso continuo in all the other pieces. Halubek is more generous in this department. He also encourages his players to add embellishments, and they have taken that to heart. I feel that now and then they go a bit over the top. As far as the vocal forces are concerned, Halubek opted for a performance with one voice per part. Ten voices, from soprano to bass, suffice. Whereas in most modern performances the alto parts are performed by male altos, in this performance one female alto is involved. Some performers also prefer a lavish sound in the basso continuo. Halubek's continuo section is certainly not minimalistic, but relatively modest.

His recording has been made in the wake of a series of theatrical performances of Monteverdi's operas. The Vespers followed scenic productions of Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria and L'incoronazione di Poppea in the Mannheim National Theatre. "[This] CD recording offers a form of musical access representing a sequel to the scenic exploration of the Marian Vespers". Halubek sees similarities between the Vespers and the operas and considers them equally dramatic. Silke Leopold also points out several connections between the Vespers and Monteverdi's first opera L'Orfeo. There is certainly some truth in that, and one could argue that the Catholic liturgy, and in particular the mass, in itself is a kind of drama, as the visible aspects are more important than words. However, I can't really imagine how to perform the Vespers in a scenic manner. Anyway, one would then expect this performance to be theatrical, or at least dramatic, but that is not how I experienced it while listening. The singing and playing are generally excellent, despite some vibrato here and there, but there are several moments where I noted too much restraint. The solo concertos should have had more impact, but although they are nicely sung, I feel they don't get under the listener's skin.

In comparison, the performance directed by Simon-Pierre Bestion is much more dramatic. He employs a larger ensemble; in addition to the soloists he uses a vocal ensemble of 27 voices. In the tutti, the result is a rather massive sound, which reminds me of the old days. In the instrumental ensemble the number of instruments in each group is small, but we find instruments one does not expect in a performance of the Vespers, such as a trumpet and a serpent. The basso continuo section is large, and includes six plucked instruments, including two harps. The playing is excellent, the singing pretty good, although there is notable vibrato here and there. However, the concertos are given a more incisive performance than in Halubek's recording. But that's about it as far as the positive aspects of this recording are concerned.

I already mentioned that is even questionable whether Monteverdi had a complete performance in mind. Even so, Halubek decided to perform the pieces as they were printed. Bestion uses this as an argument to treat the work with considerable freedom: "[Hence] our venturing a different reading from the one strictly laid down in the score".

What exactly do we get here? One important feature is that every antiphon is followed by a chant in faux-bourdon; these settings are taken from a French 17th-century manuscript, which suggests that they may have not been known in Italy in Monteverdi's time (Bestion changed the texts). The antiphons are treated with much freedom: some are sung in a more or less mediterranean style, which Bestion justifies by referring to Venice's contacts with the East. This is rather odd, as in the interview he suggests that Monteverdi may have performed some parts, probably even the entire piece, when he was still in Mantua. Some antiphons are sung to a bourdon. Laetatus sum and Duo Seraphim are preceded by pretty long instrumental introductions. Domine ad adiuvandum me is preceded by the toccata from L'Orfeo. In the Gloria section of the Magnificat, the single echo is extended by two further echo voices. In Ave maris stella several polyphonic passages are 'stripped down' and 'simplified' in order to be sung by a solo voice. One of the stanzas is hummed. An example of a piece performed twice is the hymn Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis: preceding the concerto Audi coelum we hear Frescobaldi's Ricercar sopra Sancta Maria, and later we get Monteverdi's sonata on the same text. The participation of a serpent is typical of Bestion's approach. He acknowledges that it has nothing to do with Monteverdi: "To me it evokes the sound of the shofar, the ritual Jewish's ram's horn, and I wanted to integrate it into our instrumentarium to reflect the cosmopolitanism of Venice at the time the Vespers were written".

As far as the performance is concerned: the players add a lot of embellishments, and like in Halubek's performance, I feel that they are sometimes - or, in this case, often - exaggerating. The same goes for the singers, and some ornamentations are ill-judged. In Duo Seraphim the trilli are certainly not perfect. The tempi are often rather slow. The differences with Halubek are striking: Dixit Dominus 9'06" vs 7'15", Laetatus sum 8'24" vs 6'25", Ave maris stella 10'52" vs 6'27".

The verdict of this recording comes from the interview with Bestion in the booklet. He is asked: "Is it possible that the Vespers would have been performed in this way at the period they were composed?" His answer: "No, not at all! This is a complete re-imagining, adding in instrumental parts, and also singing the same sections of a text twice, something that would never be done in this kind of office. (...) What we are presenting here is a great musical voyage in the form of an office - rethought, reimagined, and not intended to be scrupulously historical". He adds: "Musically, the ear is not at all offended because these changes seem like an intensification, a prolonging of prayer; historically, it's certainly questionable". Historically, it is questionable indeed; I'd rather say that his performance has nothing to do with historical performance practice. He is wrong in the first part of his answer: at least my ears are definitely offended. When I play a recording of Monteverdi's Vespers, I want to hear what he has written down, not something that is the product of the fantasy of the performer. Why some performers think that their ideas and concepts are so important that they have the freedom to (ab)use someone else's music, is beyond me.

Despite the postive aspects with regard to singing and playing, this performing is utterly annoying and basically an offense to everything historical performance practice stands for. I just don't want to hear it. Let's return to the real Monteverdi.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Il Gusto Barocco

CD Reviews