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Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567 - 1643): "Vespro di Natale / Christmas Vespers"

La Cetra Barockorchester & Vokalensemble Basel
Dir: Andrea Marcon

rec: August 2021, Treviso, Museo Santa Caterina
DGG - 4862977 (© 2022) (95'31")
[review: digital download]
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet
Scores Monteverdi

[in order of appearance] plainchant: Deus in adiutorium/ Claudio MONTEVERDI: Vespro della Beata Vergine (SV 206) (Domine ad adiuvandum me) [2]; Dixit Dominus II (SV 264) [9]; Giovanni GABRIELI (c1554/57-1612): Intonatione del 1° tono (C 240)a [1]; Alessandro GRANDI (1575-1630): O felix, o lucidissima nox [8]; Giovanni GABRIELI: Intonatione del 11° tono (C 249)a [1]; Claudio MONTEVERDI: Confitebor tibi, Domine III (alla francese) (SV 267) [9]; Francesco USPER (c1570-1641): Sonata a 8 con quattro soprani [5]; Giovanni GABRIELI: Intonatione del 5° tono (C 243)a [1]; Claudio MONTEVERDI: Beatus vir I (SV 268) [9]; Alessandro GRANDI: O intemerata [4]; Giovanni GABRIELI: Intonatione del 2° tono (C 241)a [1]; Claudio MONTEVERDI: Laudate pueri II (SV 271) [9]; Venite, sitientes, ad aquas Domini (SV 335) [7]; Giovanni GABRIELI: Intonatione del 8° tono (C 246)a [1]; Claudio MONTEVERDI: Laudate Dominum I (SV 270) [9]; Giovanni GABRIELI: Sonata XVIII à 14 (C 211) [3]; Claudio MONTEVERDI: [Hymnus] Christe redemptor omnium (SV 280) [9]; Giovanni VALENTINI (c1582/83-1649): Hodie Christus natus est; Giovanni GABRIELI: Intonatione del 9° tono (C 247)a [1]; Claudio MONTEVERDI: Magnificat I (SV 281) [9]; Giovanni GABRIELI: Intonatione del 10° tono (C 248)a [1]; Claudio MONTEVERDI: Cantate Domino a 6 (SV 293) [6]

Sources: [1] Giovanni Gabrieli, Intonationi d'organo, libro primo, 1593; [2] Claudio Monteverdi, Sanctissimae Virgini missa senis vocibus ad ecclesiarum choros ac vesperae pluribus decantandae cum nonnullis sacris concentibus, ad sacella sive principum cubicula accommodata, 1610; [3] Giovanni Gabrieli, Canzoni et sonate, 1615; [4] Alessandro Grandi, Il secondo libro de motetti, 16172; [5] Francesco Usper, Compositioni armoniche nelle quali si contengono motetti, sinfonie, sonate, canzoni & capricci ... et in fine la battaglia, 1619; [6] Giulio Bianchi, ed., Libro primo de motetti, 1620; [7] Lorenzo Calvi, ed., Seconda raccolta de sacri canti, 1624; [8] Alessandro Grandi, Motetti a una, due et quattro voci con sinfonie d'istromenti, Libro secondo, 1625 [9] Claudio Monteverdi, Selva morale e spirituale, 1641

[La Cetra Vokalensemble] Alice Borciani, Francesca Cassinari, Jeanne-Marie Lelièvre, Annie Dufresne, Teodora Tommasi, Mirjam Striegel, soprano; Jessika Grape, Daniela Florencia Menconi, Marcjanna Myrlak, contralto; Carlos Mena, Matthias Lucht, William Shelton, alto; Luca Gotti, Ivo Haun de Oliveira, Akinobu Ono, Giacomo Schiavo, Csongor Szántó, tenor; Carlos Federico Sepúlveda, Ismael Arróniz, Guglielmo Buonsanti, Felix Gygli, Jan Kuhar, Francesc Ortega, bass
[La Cetra Barockorchester] Frithjof Smith, Gebhard David, cornett; Simen van Mechelen, Henning Wiegräbe, Sabine Gassner, Josephus Swinkels, sackbut; Eva Saladin, Claudio Rado, violin; Sonoko Asabuki, Christoph Rudolfviola; Jonathan Pesek, cello; Fred Uhlig, double bass; Maria Ferré, Lorenzo Abate, theorbo; Johannes Keller, Giulio De Nardoa, organ

What exactly are Christmas Vespers or a Christmas Mass? Both Vespers and Mass consist of Ordinary chants: they are a fixed part of the liturgy, independent of the time of the year or the feast at which they are celebrated. The link with the latter comes from the Proper chants, which vary from day to day. What can we expect from a recording of Christmas Vespers by Claudio Monteverdi? It is intriguing that in the oeuvre of Monteverdi hardly any pieces can be found that are specifically connected to Christmas. It is telling that the only item of this kind is the hymn Christe redemptor omnium, included here. (One may add Venite, sitientes, ad aquas Domini, which is a sequence for the first Sunday of Advent.)

The Vespers open with the prayer Deus in adiutorium meum and the response Domine ad adiuvandum me. Then follow five psalms, a hymn and the Magnificat. The psalms and the Magnificat are framed by an antiphon. The antiphons are the main connection to the time of the year, and if one wants to perform a Vesper service as it could have been performed at Christmastide, one has to select the appropriate antiphons from collections of liturgical chants. Andrea Marcon did not select any plainchant, and the booklet notes don't explain why. Instead, each of the Ordinary parts of the Vespers is introduced by an intonazione from a collection by Giovanni Gabrieli. Such intonations were used to establish the tone of the ensuing vocal work. One wonders whether, and if so, how they were used in Vespers. It seems unlikely that they would be played between the antiphon and the psalm; Playing them before the antiphon would have made no sense. The antiphon was to be repeated after the Psalm or the Magnificat, but it was customary in Monteverdi's time to perform a vocal concerto or an instrumental sonata instead. That is also the case here. However, we have here the odd situation that these pieces are played to replace an antiphon that has never been sung.

Obviously, the substitute vocal items were selected according to the occasion. The sacred concerto by Alessandro Grandi, O felix, o lucidissima nox, performed after the Dixit Dominus, is a clear example. It is in praise of the night Jesus was born, as is made clear halfway, when the text says: "From the point at which the sun rises to the very ends of the earth let us hymn Christ the Prince, who was born of the Virgin Mary." Grandi was Monteverdi's colleague at St Mark's, but due to the rivalry between the two men, Grandi did have little opportunity to compose large-scale sacred music. He made a virtue of necessity and wrote a large number of sacred concertos for solo voice(s), which are among the best written at the time. This particular piece is a fine example, and so is his O intemerata, which is sung after the Beatus vir. This is a piece about the Virgin Mary, who is never far away in the nativity story, in particular in the Catholic world, where the veneration of Mary flourished at all levels of society. The text does not refer to the birth of Christ; as I don't know what kind of antiphons were sung at Christmas, it is impossible for me to say whether its inclusion in a Christmas Vespers makes sense.

The same goes for the concerto Venite, sitientes, ad aquas Domini by Monteverdi. This text seems to be connected to the liturgy of the first day of Christmas: "O come ye to the waters of the Lord, you who are thirsty, hasten ye, buy milk and honey, without money. Come ye, drink the wine which has sent you ineffable wisdom." One of the best-known texts for Christmastide is Hodie Christus natus est, which is performed here after the hymn in a setting by Giovanni Valentini. He was from Venice, but worked for most of his life elsewhere: in Poland and then at the imperial court in Vienna.

A few things concerning performance practice need to be mentioned. First: with 24 voices (6/6/6/6) the vocal ensemble is quite large, but that may be justified in the light of what we know about the chapel in St Mark's. However, it is virtually impossible to be sure how many singers may have been involved in performances, as there were so many occasions, in which they had to participate, in particular during the main feasts. The size of the ensemble certainly does justice to the importance of Christmas. Second, whereas in many recordings a small organ is used in the basso continuo, here a large organ is played, which was built in 1998 by Francesco Zanin. In the booklet, Andrea Marcon explains how this influenced the performance, which is very different from live performances in the past, often in modern concert halls or in churches without an appropriate large organ. It is not just the power of such an organ, but also the kind of stops and the temperament, which have a substantial impact on the way the Vespers are performed.

Although I expressed some reservations, from a liturgical point of view, with regard to the way the programme has been put together, the performance as a whole is quite impressive. The use of a large organ is indeed one of its assets, and it attests once again - like in cantatas by Bach, for instance - that this is a major development in performance practice. The singers are all very good: the ensemble is excellent, and the concertos for solo voices are given outstanding interpretations. The instrumental parts are colourful and deliver a major contribution to the impact of this recording.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

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La Cetra Barockorchester & Vokalensemble Basel

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