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

amarcord; Lautten Compagney
Dir: Wolfgang Katschner

rec: Oct 6 - 9, 2013 & April 23 - 24, 2014, Berlin-Dahlem, Jesus-Christus-Kirche
Carus - 83.394 (© 2014) (80'20")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Angelika Lenter, Hanna Zumsande, soprano; David Erler, Stefan Kunath, alto; Martin Lattke, Wolfram Lattke, Robert Pohlers, Daniel Schreiber, tenor; Frank Ozimek, baritone; Daniel Knauft, Holger Krause, bass
Martin Ripper, recorder; Friederike Otto, Marie Garnier-Marzullo, François Petitlaurent, cornett; Kentaro Wada, Bernhard Meier, Clemens Erdmann, sackbut; Jennifer Harris, dulcian; Hans-Werner Apel, Andreas Nachtsheim, theorbo; Mark Nordstrand, organ

The Vespro della Beata Vergine by Claudio Monteverdi has not the same status as, for instance, Bach's St Matthew Passion, Handel's Messiah or Mozart's Requiem, but it comes pretty close. That is reflected by the long and still growing list of recordings. In recent years I have reviewed several of them and given a survey of the problems which interpreters have to solve. This work raises many questions, and in most cases there are no conclusive answers. This explains the many differences between recordings. As far as the present recording is concerned, two aspects are especially relevant.

The first issue is whether this work was conceived as a unity and whether it should be performed within a liturgical framework. In his liner-notes Uwe Wolf answers both questions negatively. He believes that there are reasons to assume that the various pieces within this work were written at various times in Monteverdi's career and not conceived as a unity right from the start. However, he states that "it would be wrong to deny that the Vespers has a musical unity", which is also expressed in the edition's subtitle. The order of the pieces - the traditional Vesper psalms and the Magnificat - and that of the additional pieces - the concerti and the sonata - point in that direction too. "Although a complete performance of the Vespers would hardly have been the composer's wish (or, more correctly, would not have been contemplated), as an entity Monteverdi's Vespers represents such a kaleidoscope of different approaches to the modern style, that this music can only reveal its tremendous artistic power in a complete performance". He goes on: "For this does not need the "reconstructed" liturgical framework of a celebration long-sice disappeared from church services, which the listener cannot participate in but only experience as an observer". That answers the second question, although the argument is not very convincing. In my review of the recent recording by Leonardo García Alarcón I have mentioned more serious reasons why a performance within a liturgical framework causes some problems.

The second issue concerns the number of performers involved. Again there is no conclusive evidence as to how many singers and players could have been involved, if this work would have been performed in Monteverdi's time. One may assume that this depended on the circumstances in a church or chapel. In Venice the maesto di cappella had probably a pretty large number of musicians at his disposal, but it is unlikely they were all involved in the liturgy, except at very special occasions. This means that a performance with a chamber choir of 16 to 20 singers is just as tenable as a performance with one voice per part, as is the case here. There are far stronger arguments in favour of a full integration of soli and tutti, and that is the case here too.

The pitch in this performance is a=465 Hz which is comparable to what was known in Germany as Chorton and was common in northern Italy at the time. In most performances the Lauda Jerusalem and the Magnificat are transposed down. That is not the case here. That is especially notable in the Gloria Patri of the Magnificat where the range of the tenor part (and his echo) is very high - unnaturally high, if one is used to the transposed version. The temperament is 1/4 comma meantone.

Technically and stylistically this is one of the best performances I have ever heard. The singers are outstanding: there is no hint of vibrato, the delivery is impressive thanks to a perfect diction and articulation, and the ornaments - whether written out or added by the performers - are immaculately executed. The voices also blend very well; that is not only demonstrated in the tutti episodes, especially in the psalm settings, but also in the concerto Pulchra es which is problematic in so many recordings due to the vibrato of the singers. In many pieces the rhythmic pulse comes off very well. Overall I have greatly enjoyed this recording.

However, I have also noted some flaws. The Sonata sopra Sancta Maria is a little too fast; it doesn't really breathe. In Nisi Dominus one passage is performed with a solo tenor, with the other parts being performed instrumentally. I don't see any reason for that, and it is also rather inconsistent as this practice is followed nowhere else. In Audi coelum the echo has been placed so far in the background that it is hardly audible, even with a headphone. The difference in volume between the two tenors is too large, and I wonder whether this was intended by the composer. On a positive note: in Duo seraphim the phrase "et hi tres unum sunt" is not sung piano as is the case in almost all recordings I know. I have never understood the reasoning behind this practice, and I am quite happy that it is not followed here.

The issues just mentioned are no prohibitive objections against this performance. My main problem is that this recording is not very expressive. The economy in the application of ornamentation attests to that. Ornaments are added for the purpose of expression, and when they are added to sparingly this part of the performance suffers seriously. Moreover, as nice as all the voices are, they are also a bit bland and lack character. I would have liked a greater variety in vocal colours and more dynamic shading. There should have been more rhythmic freedom in the solo concertos.

When I started listening I suspected that this performance could be one of the best in the catalogue. But as much as I have enjoyed it I hardly ever felt really involved. I listened as an innocent bystander and never felt invited to take part. This is a very 'clean' performance, so to speak, and the affetti are not really explored. However, I certainly wouldn't like to miss it, because the singing and playing are superb.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

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