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CD reviews

Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567 - 1643): Sacred music

[I] "Messa a quattro voci et salmi of 1650, Volume 1"
The Sixteen
Dir: Harry Christophers
rec: Nov 5 - 12, 2015, London, Church of St Augustine, Kilburn
Coro - COR16142 (© 2016) (71'29")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Francesco CAVALLI (1602-1676): Magnificatabdefg; Claudio MONTEVERDI: Beatus vir a 7 (SV 195)abcdefg; Confitebor tibi Domine (II) a due voci (SV 194)ae; Dixit Dominus (I) a 8 (SV 191); Laetaniae della Beata Vergine a 6 (SV 204)abdefg; Laetatus sum (II) a 5 (SV 199); Lauda Jerusalem (I) a 3 (SV 202)dfg; Laudate pueri (III) a 5 'da capella' (SV 196); Nisi Dominus (I) a 3 (SV 200)aeh

Source: Messa a quattro voci, et Salmi a una, due, tre, quattro, cinque, sei, sette, & otto voci, concertati, e parte da cappella, & con le Letanie della B. V., 1650

Julie Cooper, Grace Davidson (soloa), Kirsty Hopkins, Elin Manahan Thomas (solob), soprano; Kim Porter, contralto (soloc); Ian Aitkenhead, David Clegg, Daniel Collins, alto; Simon Berridge, Jeremy Budd (solod), Mark Dobell (soloe), Steven Harrold, George Pooley (solof), tenor; Ben Davies, Eamonn Dougan, Jimmy Holliday (solog), Tim Jones, Stuart Young (soloh), bass
Simon Jones, Andrea Jones, violin; Joseph Crouch, cello; Frances Kelly, harp; David Miller, chitarrone; Alastair Ross, harpsichord, organ

[II] Missa In illo tempore; Magnificat a 6 voci
Ensemble Corund
Dir: Stephen Smith
rec: March 2017, Zurich, Studio SRF
Spektral - SRL4-17159 (© 2018) (50'36")
No liner-notes; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

Nicolas GOMBERT (c1495-c1560): In illo tempore loquente Jesu a 6; Claudio MONTEVERDI: Magnificat a 6 voci [1]; Missa In illo tempore [1]

[1] Claudio Monteverdi, Sanctissimae Virgini Missa senis vocibus ac Vesperae pluribus decantandae, cum nonnullis sacris concentibus, ad Sacella sive Principum Cubicula accommodata, 1610

Gabriela Bürgler, Marianne Knoblauch, cantus; Sara Jäggi, Aline Willi-Jayet, sextus; Rolf Ehlers, Sebastian Mory, altus; Raphaël Favre, Achim Glatz, tenor; Zacharie Fogal, David Munderloh, quintus; Ismael Arróniz, Philipp Scherer, bassus
Rosario Conte, theorbo; Eva Hagberg, organ


Claudio Monteverdi is generally considered one of the geniuses in music history, and that explains the large number of recordings of his oeuvre. However, some parts are more frequently explored than others, and the commemoration of his birth in 2017 has resulted in some recordings of those lesser-known parts, especially pieces from the collection of 1650. Only very recently I reviewed a recording under the direction of Roland Wilson, who selected pieces from this collection and, with the addition of pieces by contemporaries, put them together to a Vesper service. Harry Christophers, with his vocal and instrumental ensemble The Sixteen, started in 2015 with the recording of the entire collection, not in a kind of liturgical setting, but as separate pieces. As the publisher, Giacomo Vincenti, could not find a setting of the Magnificat in Monteverdi's unpublished heritage, he included a setting by Francesco Cavalli. This is also part of The Sixteen's first volume in this series.

Several items are also part of Wilson's recording: Dixit Dominus, Lauda Jerusalem, Nisi Dominus, Laudate pueri and the Laetaniae della Beata Vergine. Whereas Wilson mostly opted for the participation of instruments, playing colla voce, Christophers performs them with voices and basso continuo. As Monteverdi does not require the use of instruments and Wilson's performance merely reflects a then common practice, both approaches are fully legitimate.

There are some strongly contrasting pieces in the first volume. It opens with Dixit Dominus, in which Monteverdi makes use of the cori spezzati technique, established in Venice by Adrian Willaert. Next follows another Vesper psalm, Confitebor tibi Domino, one of two in the collection. They are both for solo voice(s): the first for soprano, two violins and basso continuo, the second - performed here - is for two voices (soprano and tenor), again with two violins and bc. The third piece is Lauda Jerusalem, again one of the Vesper psalms, and again for solo voices: alto, tenor and bass. Two aspects deserve attention here. Firstly, whereas in Wilson's recording the upper voice is allocated to a male alto, in Christophers' recording that part is taken by a tenor. This certainly is due to a difference in pitch. The Coro booklet does not include any information on this matter, but Wilson adopted a high pitch of a=467 Hz. Secondly, Wilson believes that this piece originally included tutti sections. "The virtuosic sections for the soloists are framed by homophonic tutti sections, alwasy on the same harmonic basis, functioning as a ritornello. The parts for the tutti singers are missing in Vincenti's print as is immediately obvious from the harmonic context of the three solo parts, apart from which there exists a "twin" psalm - Confitebor primo - in the Selva Morale which has exactly the same architecture and scoring even sharing the same metre and key, making the task of reconstruction simple." No such reconstruction is attempted in The Sixteen's recording.

Next we get Cavalli's Magnificat, which is stylistically pretty close to Monteverdi, with a mixture of tutti episodes in the stile antico and concertato passages for solo voices. The 1650 collection includes two settings of the Vesper psalm Laetatus sum; Wilson chose the first, scored for six instruments and five voices, whereas here we get the second, for five voices and basso continuo. Whereas Wilson opts for performances with one voice per part, Christophers uses larger forces in pieces and episodes for tutti; here the five parts are performed with sixteen of the 18 voices of his ensemble in this recording. This psalm is followed by the first setting of Nisi Dominus, scored for three solo voices, two violins and bc. Monteverdi uses the scoring to vividly illustrate elements in the text, such as "surgite postquam sederitis" (to sit up late) and "sicut sagittae in manu potentis" (like as the arrows in the hand of the giant). The next piece is another Psalm, Laudate pueri; this time we hear a setting for five voices, with the addition da capella, indicating that this is an ensemble piece, and does not include extended solo parts.

The Laetaniae della Beata Vergine are one of many settings of this text in Monteverdi's time. It is notable that this is the only piece in the collection which had been printed before. Apparently Vincenti thought it to be important to print it once again, probably paying tribute to the increasing popularity of the veneration of Mary. This may be partly due to the influence of the Counter Reformation, but also to the role of the Virgin - according to Pope Pius V - in the victory of Venice over the Turks in 1571. It is scored for six voices and bc; both Wilson and Christophers opt for a performance with voices alone, without the participation of instruments (except the basso continuo). The disc ends with a large-scale setting of Beatus vir, for seven voices, two violins and bc. In its alternation of tutti and soli it is a typical mixture of the stile antico and the concertato style.

As far as the performance is concerned, this piece comes off best by far. Overall I am not very impressed by what I have heard. The ensemble is generally alright, but the solo parts are mostly rather flat and lack expression. The dynamic range is very limited, the voices are mostly pretty colourless, and the playing of the violins is too restrained. I referred above to elements of text expression in Nisi Dominus; very little of that is conveyed here. In comparison Wilson's performances are much better, and that is not only due to his use of instruments. His singers are stylistically more convincing, with a wider dynamic range, a wider palette of colours and a better articulation. In his preface Christophers refers to the art of recitar cantando, "speak through singing". Wilson's singers show a better command of that art than The Sixteen's. Some of them, especially one or two sopranos, allow themselves some vibrato which is out of place here. Sometimes I found the performances rather boring, and that is something that is hard to achieve in Monteverdi.

The publication of the Messa a 4 voci et salmi and that of Sanctissimae Virgini missa senis vocibus ad ecclesiarum choros ac vesperae pluribus decantandae are forty years apart; the latter dates from 1610 and includes one of Monteverdi's most famous works, his Vespro della Beata Vergine. However, there is no fundamental stylistic difference between the two; the 1650 collection includes pieces which may have been written only a few years later than the 1610 pieces. And both are a mixture of the old and the new style. Like the 1650 edition, the collection of 1610 includes a mass setting, the Missa In illo tempore. Its title indicates that Monteverdi here links up with a long tradition of using pre-existing material as the starting point of a mass, generally known as parody mass. In this case he turned to a motet by one of the main representatives of the Franco-Flemish school, Nicolas Gombert. Monteverdi selected ten motifs from Gomberts motet, which he called fughe and are included in the edition. This piece is written in the purely stile antico.

Monteverdi's Vespers include a highly elaborate setting of the Magnificat. Probably in order to offer less well-equipped chapels an alternative which was within their grasp, he included a simpler setting which is largely based on the same principle - a mixture of polyphony and concertato episodes - but is less virtuosic and omits instrumental parts. It is disappointing that this work is relatively seldom performed. In his recent recording of the Vespers Giuseppe Maletto included this setting, but the booklet doesn't spend a word on this piece. That is probably telling and indicates that it is given little attention. Therefore the recording of this setting by the Ensemble Corund, directed by Stephen Smith, is most welcome.

The mass - followed by Gombert's motet - and the Magnificat receive excellent performances by this ensemble which I had not heard before. It consists of twelve singers, which are divided into soli and ripieni. This allows for dynamic contrasts within the Missa In illo tempore. The members of the ensemble make also a good showing in the solo passages in the Magnificat. The voices are supported by theorbo and organ. The production standard is disappointing: the rear side mentions "texts in English (20 pages)", but we get only the lyrics of the three works sung here, with translations in English and German, biographies of the ensemble and its director and a picture of the ensemble over two pages. There is no word about the music, despite two empty pages. These performances deserved better.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Corund
The Sixteen

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