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Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567 - 1643): Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610)

Gabrieli Consort & Players
Dir: Paul McCreesh

rec: November 2005, Tonbridge, Tonbridge Chapel
Archiv - 00289 477 6147 (2 CDs) (© 2006) (1.37'55")

Adriano BANCHIERI (1568-1634): Secondo dialogo; Giovanni Paolo CIMA (c1570-after 1622): Canzon IV La Pace; Claudio MONTEVERDI: Vespro della Beata Vergine; Ercole PASQUINI (1550s-1610s): Toccata

Susan Hemington Jones, Tessa Bonner, soprano; Mark Chambers, William Towers, alto; Daniel Auchincloss, Will Unwin, high tenor; Charles Daniels, Joseph Cornwell, tenor; Peter Harvey, Charles Pott, baritone; Simon Grant, Richard Savage, bass; Angus Smith, Robert Evans, Eamon Dougan, Don Grieg [chant]; William Lyons, Elizabeth Walker, recorder, transverse flute; Jeremy West, Adrian Woodward, Nicholas Perry, cornett; Susan Addison, Philip Dale, Patrick Jackman, sackbut; Catherine Martin, Oliver Webber, violin; Rachel Byrt, viola; Richard Campbell, Christopher Suckling, tenor violin; Joseph Crouch, bass violin; Timothy Amherst, violone; Paula Chateauneuf, theorbo; Frances Kelly, harp; Benjamin Bayl, harpsichord; James Johnstone, organ

Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 were one of his first compositions which was performed when he was rediscovered in modern times. And when the historical performance practice emerged, it were these Vespers again which took profit of the use of historical instruments. And nowadays it is still by far Monteverdi's most popular work. Many books have been written about it,as there are many questions regarding its structure and the way it should be performed. Some of them are dealt with in the interview with Paul McCreesh, which has been printed in the booklet. Some of them have a direct influence on the way the Vespers are performed here.

One of the features of this recording is the order in which the music is performed, which is different from the order in Monteverdi's publication. McCreesh states that the Psalms are printed in the right liturgical order of the Vespers, and the extra-liturgical pieces "in the entirely normal printer's order of ascending number of voices". "But while some choose to perform the music as published, I think it is possible to create a far more convincing artistic statement if one reorders the music to take account of contemporary liturgical practice". The 'Sonata sopra Sancta Maria' is treated here as a substitute for the antiphon following the Magnificat, 'Duo Seraphim' and 'Audi coelum' are moved toward the end of the Vespers, to replace the 'Deo gratias' and as a substitute for one of the antiphons respectively. As a result other music is chosen as sustitutes for the antiphons following the Psalms: three short organ pieces by Cima (after 'Laudate pueri'), Pasquini (after 'Laetatus sum') and Banchieri (after 'Nisi Dominus'). In recordings following the printed order the last Psalm, 'Lauda Jerusalem', is followed by the 'Sonata sopra Sancta Maria', but here it is replaced by the concerto 'Pulchra es', printed after 'Laudate pueri'.

In his recording Paul McCreesh follows the practice of transposing down the Psalm 'Lauda Jerusalem' and the Magnificat. "When one knows 16th- and 17th century music in some depth, one cannot accept these movements at written pitch: the voices and, still more, the instruments go far too high for their normal range." He also opts for a performance with voices and bc: instruments are used only when the composer specifically asks for them.

It is a very good thing that Paul McCreesh gives an insight into the reasoning behind some of his artistic decisions regarding the performance of Monteverdi's Vespers. The views about the issues he talks about are very different. It is interesting, for instance, that Tim Carter, who has interviewed McCreesh, was himself involved in the recording by Cantus Cölln (1994). In the programme notes he writes about the pitch of 'Lauda Jerusalem' and the Magnificat: "we perform the Magnificat at high pitch, preferring (with some contemporary precedent) the excitement of pushing voices and instruments to their limits". So it seems one can use historical evidence for both decisions. It is quite possible the final answer to this and other questions will never be found. That wouldn't be very surprising, if the German musicologist Silke Leopold is right as she writes: "In the Vespers he doesn't show church music as it was, but as it should be. With his work Monteverdi set musical standards without letting his musical invention be influenced by the question of their practical feasibility".

Paul McCreesh is a renowned expert in this kind of repertoire, and it is a little surprising that he hasn't recorded the Vespers before. He has recorded some 'liturgical reconstructions" from the same period years ago, and they were very impressive. So I was looking forward to his contribution to the ever-growing list of recordings of this masterpiece. But listening to it I was increasingly disappointed. In the Psalms I missed a coherent sound of the ensemble due to the fact that some singers use some amount of vibrato. Sometimes, in particular in fast passages, the articulation gets a little muddy, and I had liked to hear short breathing spaces between phrases. In the solo concertos the singing of the soloists is a little flat. Joseph Cornwell sings 'Nigra sum' rather well, but a bit uninvolved. I had liked to hear more ornamentation as well. That is also the case in 'Pulchra es': Susan Hemington Jones and Tessa Bonner have beautiful voices which blend well, but their interpretation is too bland. 'Duo Seraphim' and in particular 'Audi coelum' are a bit better, partly thanks to the excellent singing of Charles Daniels. The ornametation is an issue here too: there could have been more of it, and sometimes I feel the actual performance of the ornaments was a little sloppy.

The instrumental playing is brilliant: both strings and wind players deliver very good performances. The Sonata sopra Sancta Maria gives ample evidence of their qualities. It is one of the highlights of this recording, as are the Magnificat and the hymn 'Ave maris stella'. The plainchant is sung as it is usually done, and one wonders if in Monteverdi's time it perhaps would have been treated more like the polyphony, including the use of dynamic shading.

This recording is certainly interesting, and there is definitely something to enjoy. But for me it is not the recording I was waiting for. I haven't still found the ideal interpretation. The waiting continues ...

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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