musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567 - 1643): Selva morale e spirituale

Balthasar Neumann Choir & Soloists; Balthasar Neumann Ensemble
Dir: Pablo Heras-Casado

rec: May 9, 11 & 13, 2017, Murcia (ES)
Harmonia mundi - HMM 902355 (© 2017) (70'49")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Confitebor tibi (II) (SV 266); Crucifixus (SV 259); Dixit Dominus (II) (SV 264); Et iterum (SV 261); Et resurrexit (SV 260); Iste confessor (I) (SV 278b); Jubilet tota civitas (SV 286); Laudate Dominum (III) (SV 274); Laudate pueri Dominum (I) (SV 270); Magnificat (I) (SV 281); O ciechi, ciechi (SV 252); Salve Regina a 2 voci (SV 284); Salve Regina a 3 voci (SV 285); Ut queant laxis (SV 279a); Voi ch'ascoltate (SV 253)

Magdalene Harrer, Cécile Kempenaers, Julia Kirchner, Hanna Zumsande, soprano; Anne Bierwirth, contralto; Beat Duddeck, Matthias Lucht, Mirko Ludwig, alto; Nils Giebelhausen, Hermann Oswald, Jakob Pilgram, Manuel Warwitz, tenor; Marek Rzepka, Raimonds Spogis, Hans Wijers, Dominik Wörner, bass
Gebhard David, Frithjof Smith, cornett; Henning Wiegräbe, Cas Gevers, Michael Hufnagel, Ralf Müller, sackbut; Moni Fischalek, dulcian; Cosimo Stawiarski, Eva Saladin, violin; Frauke Hess, Juliane Laake, viola da gamba; Matthias Müller, violone; Margret Köll, harp; Joachim Held, Johannes Gontarski, lute, theorbo; Michael Behringer, harpsichord, organ

One of the major collections of sacred music which Claudio Monteverdi published during his career, dates from 1640/41, under the title Selva morale e spirituale. It was a long time ago since he had any sacred music printed. In fact, the previous collection was also his first: the edition of 1610, which included the Vespro della Beata Vergine. In between some of his compositions had been included in anthologies, for instance the Ghirlanda Sacra, which was put together by Leonardo Simonetti and came from the press in 1625.

At the time of publication of the Selva morale e spirituale Monteverdi was at an advanced age, and it seems that he aimed at presenting an overview of his art in the field of sacred music. This could explain why the collection includes such different pieces. As in the 1610 edition both the stile antico and the stile moderno are represented, and in some pieces they are mingled, as was the case in his Vespers. The present disc includes specimens of the various styles.

The Messa da cappella is written in the pure stile antico; it is not included here. Instead we get three separate mass movements, more precisely sections from the Credo: Crucifixus, Et resurrexit and Et iterum. As they are written in the modern concertante style it is hard to see them as alternatives to the equivalent sections of the Mass; their inclusion would break up its stylistic unity. Of these three pieces the Crucifixus is stylistically most close to the Mass.

At the other end of the spectrum we find a number of spiritual madrigals, which are certainly not intended for liturgical use, but for domestic performance. One could compare them with the spiritual contrafacta of Monteverdi's madrigals, which had been printed some decades ago. These pieces are not fundamentally different from the purely secular madrigals. Whereas many pieces by Monteverdi can be performed with one voice per part, but also with a larger ensemble, in this case the former seems the only legitimate option. It guarantees that the text is clearly intelligible and the strongly declamatory character has its optimal effect. That is also the way these pieces are performed here.

The larger-scale pieces also show the influence of Monteverdi's secular music. Dixit Dominus is one of the most dramatic pieces from the Book of Psalms and has been set in theatrical fashion by various composers in the course of history. George Frideric Handel's setting is a perfect example. With different means Monteverdi is not any less theatrical. One is reminded here of the stile concitato, which he used in the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. In these pieces Monteverdi requires various instruments which have obbligato parts to play.

Heras-Casado also adds instruments where Monteverdi did not explicitly require them, such as in Laudate Dominum terzo, which is for eight voices and basso continuo. Here the winds play colla voce. This was common practice at the time, and from that perspective it is a legitimate option. However, if we remind ourselves that Monteverdi was rather modest in his prescription of instruments in the 1610 Vespers, there could be a good reason to omit instruments in a piece like this. Heras-Casado seems generally to prefer the loud wind instruments over the softer strings. Laudate pueri Dominum primo, for instance, is scored for five voices and two violins, but here we hear cornetts again, alternating with the violins. And in Ut queant laxis the violin parts are entirely played on cornetts.

The latter is a piece for solo voices, and with that we have arrived at the last part of this collection which is represented here. The pieces in monodic style are for one or several voices and basso continuo, sometimes with additional instruments. Jubilet tota civitas is for voce sola in dialogo. Denis Morrier, in his liner-notes, states: "The Jubilate in dialogo ('Jubilet tota civitas') for soprano and continuo features enigmatic markings ('canta', 'tacet') which seem to suggest it was performed 'in eco', with echo effects such as Monteverdi had already used in the last act of L'Orfeo (1607) and the Audi coelum of the Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610)." It is an interesting question how such a piece should be performed. Should a second singer be involved to sing in the manner of an echo, or should the singer of the piece suggest a kind of echo by singing some words piano?. Here only one singer is involved, and there is no hint of any dialogue here, let alone of echo effects. It is a highly expressive piece, as are all the monodic items: the use of solo voices allows for a detailed illustration of the text and an expression of the affetti. The Salve Regina (II) is an impressive example.

Several recordings of the complete Selva morale e spirituale are available. Here we get only a selection, but it gives a fairly good idea of what this edition has to offer. The most obvious omission is the pure stile antico. I have already mentioned some issues as far as the performance is concerned. There are some others. It is rather odd that Et iterum, scored a 3 voci, Basso & due contralti, is performed here with nine voices. I really can't figure out the reasons for that. The tempi are mostly quite fast, and sometimes I felt that they were a bit too fast. The solo pieces and solo passages are sung rather well, but here and there a slight vibrato has crept in.

However, overall I am pretty happy with these performances, which bring out the brilliance and the expressive power of Monteverdi's music rather well. Even if you have a complete recording of the Selva morale e spirituale in your collection, you should seriously consider this disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Balthasar Neumann Choir & Ensemble

CD Reviews