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

[I] "Vespers 1610"
Dunedin Consort; His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts
Dir: John Butt
rec: March 6 - 9, 2017, Edinburgh, Greyfriars Kirk
Linn Records - CKD 569 (2 CDs) (© 2017) (1.33'55")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

[DC] Joanne Lunn, Esther Brazil, soprano; Amy Lyddon, contralto; Rory McCleery, alto; Joshua Ellicott, Matthew Long, Nicholas Mulroy, Peter Harris, tenor; Peter Harvey, William Gaunt, bass
László Rózsa, recorder; Keith McGowan, recorder, transverse flute, harp; Graham O'Sullivan, transverse flute; Cecilia Bernardini, Huw Daniel, violin; Alfonso Leal del Ojo, Mark Braithwaite, viola; Jonathan Manson, bass violin; William Hunt, violone; Elizabeth Kenny, theorbo; Stephen Farr, harpsichord, Italian organ [Hauptwerk]; John Butt, chest organ
[HMSC] Jeremy West, Jamie Savan, Helen Roberts, cornett; Stephanie Dyer, Abigail Newman, Stephen Saunders, sackbut

[II] Vespro della Beata Vergine
Collegium Vocale Gent
Dir: Philippe Herreweghe
rec: August 12 - 14, 2017, Asciano, Chiesa di San Francesco
PHI - LPH029 (2 CDs) (© 2017) (1.27'40")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/NL; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Dorothee Mields*, Magdalena Podkoscielna, Dominique Verkinderen, cantus Barbora Kabátková*, Joowon Chung, Chiyuki Okamura, sextus; Benedict Hymas*, Alexander Schneider, altus I; William Knight*, Bart Uvyn, altus II; Reinoud Van Mechelen*, Stephan Gähler, Vincent Lesage, tenor; Samuel Boden*, Johannes Gaubitz, Sören Richter, quintus; Peter Kooij*, Robert van der Vinne, Bart Vandewege, bassus I; Wolf Matthias Friedrich*, Matthias Lutze, Felix Rumpf, bassus II
Peter Van Heyghen, recorder; Anne Freitag, recorder, transverse flute; Keiko Kinoshita, transverse flute; Bruce Dickey, Josué Meléndez, Andrea Inghisciano, cornett; Simen Van Mechelen, Claire McIntyre, Joost Swinkels, sackbut; Veronika Skuplik, Bojan Cicic, violin; Irene Klein, Thomas Baeté, Liam Fennelly, Romina Lischka, viola da gamba; Miriam Shalinsky, violone; Matthias Spaeter, Thomas Boysen, theorbo; Laurent Stewart, harpsichord; Kris Verhelst, organ
[Schola Gregoriana (Barbora Kabátková)] Benedict Hymas, William Knight, Vincent Lesage, Johannes Glaubitz, Sören Richter

Claudio Monteverdi's Vespro della Beata Vergine is generally considered one of the major monuments in music history, but it is also one of the most complicated. There is relatively little information about this work. For what occasion or for which feast was it written? When did Monteverdi compose his Vespers; may the various pieces it includes have been written at different times? Was it intended as a liturgical unity or rather as a collection of pieces, from which maestri di cappella could select whatever was needed?

Obviously this also has its effect on matters of performance practice. No performance of the Vespers has been documented, and therefore there is little to go by. Monteverdi has given some indications with regard to the use of instruments, but are these conclusive, or should they be interpreted as minimal requirements or as mere suggestions? As was common at the time, much is left to the discretion of the performer. Things which were common practice did not need to be spelled out, but often we don't know what exactly the conventions of the time were. Moreover, these could differ from one place to the other - for instance with regard to pitch - and conventions of the 16th century were about to change or disappear, but not everywhere at the same time and with the same speed. Taking these things into consideration, there is much room for difference in performances in our time. Often it is impossible to say whether a solution to a problem is right or wrong. There is often conflicting evidence about performance practice in Monteverdi's time, and especially if music was printed, the composers must have taken into account that circumstances - availability of singers and/or instrumentalists, acoustical circumstances - could result in different performance practices.

One needs to keep these things in mind whenever a new recording is released. The two recordings which are the subject of this review are indeed different in various aspects, the most obvious of which is that Herreweghe opted for a liturgical performance, in which plainchant is added, whereas Butt recorded only the music that Monteverdi included in his Vespers. I am not going to compare these two recordings bit by bit, as they are no immediate competitors. After all, there are so many different recordings to choose from. That said, some kind of comparison is almost inevitable, as they have landed on my desk at about the same time.

In the booklet to his recording, John Butt himself wrote the liner-notes, which include his view on several aspects of performance practice. One of the issues is that of pitch and its consequences for those pieces written in chiavette. Having mentioned several arguments in favour of various pitches, he decided for a=466 Hz, and to transpose down a fourth Lauda Jerusalem and the Magnificat. A further issue is the number of singers involved. Butt states that he has adopted "a flexible approach to vocal scoring". His starting point is Nisi Dominus, which is scored in ten separate parts. Here the tutti are sung with one voice per part. Pieces or passages with a smaller scoring are performed either with one voice per part or with additional ripienists. As far as the use of instruments is concerned, he strictly follows Monteverdi's indications: instruments are involved in those parts where Monteverdi explicitly requires them, but only in the doxology of Dixit Dominus they play colla voce.

This naturally leads to the issue of the line-up of the basso continuo. It is probably a little surprising that Butt does not discuss the role of instruments like violone, theorbo or harp, but rather confines himself to the role of the organ. Monteverdi clearly had a larger organ in mind, as the registration instructions in the Magnificat indicate. This recording was made in Britain, and here it is virtually impossible to find the appropriate organ. "The solution here (at least for the main organ - a chest organ, harpsichord and theorbo were also used for the realization of the 'bassus generalis') was to employ the Hauptwerk virtual organ system. This, it must be stressed, is not equivalent to an 'electronic organ' in its traditional sense; the system involves recording every single pipe of the organ multiple times (in this case an organ of Venetian origin from the early eighteenth century) and then making these samplings available to the player via an appropriate keyboard. In other words, this aspect of the recording is essentially a recording of another recording, as if the organist were playing the instrument in its original location and the sounds were relayed to Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh, where this recording took place." This is not the first recording where this procedure has been adopted. I can't fully assess it, as I don't know the technicalities, but overall I am very sceptical about it. It seems to me that a recording should be as a close to a live performance as possible. That is not the case here. The problem is real, but I doubt whether this is the solution.

One important issue remains to be mentioned, but that is also one of the most problematic, as Butt acknowledges: "Another area that has generated enormous controversy was sparked by Roger Bowers's contention that many of the so-called 'time signatures' dividing contiguous sections of music were in fact intended as proportions, as indicated by numerous sources from the late Renaissance. The upshot of taking these indications literally means that some sections of the music in triple time (the first noticeable one being the section 'Suscitans a terra' from the 'Laudate pueri') come out rather slower than they have tended to in recent performance practice." It has been a kind of Pandora's box, and it is almost impossible to even summarize what this is all about. It is something for specialists, and it cannot be discussed without the score at hand anyway. So I leave it there, and confine myself to note that in Butt's performance we find some wide fluctuations in tempi within pieces. Laudate pueri, mentioned by Butt, is a striking example, but we also find it in the concerto Nigra sum.

Let's turn to the performance. In the ensemble we find several names of singers who often perform this kind of music, such as Joanne Lunn, Nicholas Mulroy and Peter Harvey. Some individual contributions are quite nice: Mulroy's performance of Nigra sum is not without expression, although the fluctuation in tempi is something I find it hard to get used to. Joanne Lunn and Esther Brazil do rather well in Pulchra es, but this text requires more excitement than we get here. That is partly due to a rather narrow dynamic range, which is one of the problems of this performance as a whole. That goes for the vocal and the instrumental parts (in the latter case especially the strings) and for both the larger-scale pieces, such as the Psalms, and the solo concertos. However, one of the main problems is that several singers use quite some vibrato, which damages their solos, such as Duo Seraphim, but also the ensembles. In the latter piece the trillo is technically not immaculate and there is some difference between the singers in the way it is performed. Overall, I miss a real consistency here, unless the approach of "let it go as it goes" was the artistic creed of this recording.

In the booklet to Philippe Herreweghe's recording the liner-notes are written by Marc Vanscheeuwijck, and he also discusses several aspects of performance practice. With regard to the size of the vocal ensemble he emphasizes the variety which was common at the time, depending on the availability of singers and the size of the space in which the music was performed. Here the Collegium Vocale Gent comprises eight singers, who take care of the solos, and fourteen ripienists. As far as the use of instruments is concerned, he states that as a rule only one instrument for each part was used. He does not touch the issue of where and when they should participate. Herreweghe is more generous in this matter than Butt, as here instruments play colla voce in Nisi Dominus and Lauda Jerusalem.

Whereas Butt in his discussion of the scoring of the basso continuo focuses on the organ, Vanscheeuwijck takes the whole basso continuo group into account. He confirms Butt's opinion that small organs hardly can do justice to the character of Monteverdi's music. He is even more outspoken: "The small though quite practical Positivs generally used today are simply ahistorical". Unfortunately there is no information whatsoever about the organ Kris Verhelst plays in this recording. It took place in an Italian church, so it is quite possible that a suitable instrument was available, but on the internet I could not find any information about the organ of this church. It is often more clearly audible than the organ in Butt's performance. Vanscheeuwijck adds that the part-book for the basso continuo only mentions the organ. In some cases other instruments are required to double the continuo-line, such as a contrabasso da gamba in Domine ad adiuvandum, but "[no] theorboes, bassoons, triple harps, or 16-foot (i.e., octaviating) double basses are mentioned anywhere in the part-books, though practice and availability of appropriate instruments among these warrant their use for certain festive occasions in large spaces." He then adds that the instrumentation instructions should be considered as "absolutely mandatory and minimal". This is another example where we just don't know what Monteverdi had in mind: can other instruments be added to the discretion of the performer or does he have to confine himself to the instructions? Herreweghe and Butt both omit a bassoon, but include a theorbo (two in Herreweghe's case); unlike the latter, Butt makes use of a harp.

The information with regard to pitch is a bit confusing. "If one observes the standard transposition of a fourth lower, everything falls in place well enough when opting for a pitch somewhere around a'=445Hz (...)", but later Van Scheeuwijck writes that "the ultimate decision depends on the organ used, the acoustic environment, and on the available voices and instruments". There is just no firm information about the pitch used here. The liner-notes also discuss the issue of tempo and rhythm, to which I have referred above.

Obviously there are many differences between performances of Monteverdi's Vespers, and that is also the case here. There are two main differences. Whereas Butt opts for the performance of this work as a concert, Herreweghe preferred a liturgical setting. That is perfectly legitimate, but nowhere it is indicated which feast he had in mind. What was the selection criterion? That is not unimportant, considering that scholars agree that the concerto Duo Seraphim fits no Marian feast. The second difference is the size of the vocal ensemble. It is impossible to say which is closer to the most common circumstances in Monteverdi's time. The Vespers are intended for use in churches and chapels, and that offers the performers quite some freedom as far as this aspect of performance practice is concerned.

I listened to Herreweghe's recording after having heard Butt's performance, and I was delighted to note that it is much better in almost every respect. Butt's instrumentalists are very fine; only the strings are dynamically too flat, but that is often also the case in Herreweghe's performance. The main differences are in the vocal department. Herreweghe has the stylistically better singers, and their voices blend much better than those in Butt's performance. There is no unnecessary vibrato, the singers have a more declamatory way of singing, and the ornamentation is technically better (for instance in Duo Seraphim). However, in the concertos the ornamentation is minimal, which I find rather surprising and disappointing.

Even so, if I had to choose between these two, I would not hesitate to go for Herreweghe. The stylistic compromises in Butt's recording are just too much to swallow.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Collegium Vocale Gent
Dunedin Consort
His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts

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