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

[I] Choir of the Enlightenment; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Dir: Robert Howarth

rec: August 30, 2010 (live), London, Kings Place (Hall One)
Signum Classics - SIGCD237 (2 CDs) (© 2011) (1.37'07")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list

[CE] Grace Davidson*, Kirsty Hopkins*, soprano; Esther Brazil, Amy Moore, Meg Bragle*, Kim Porter*, soprano, mezzo-soprano; David Clegg*, Tim Travers-Brown*, Dan Collins, Tom Williams, alto; Alex Sprague, Matthew Long*, Nicholas Mulroy*, Sam Boden*, tenor; Alex Ashworth*, Robert Davies*, Philip Tebb*, Eamonn Dougan*, baritone; Stuart Young*, William Gaunt*, Jimmy Holliday, Richard Savage, bass [*soloists]
[OAE] Richard Thomas, Adrian Woodward, Nicholas Perry, cornett; Abigail Newman, Adam Woolf, Patrick Jackman, sackbut; Andrew Watts, dulcian; Alison Bury, Catherine Martin, violin; Jan Schlapp, Annette Isserlis, viola; Jonathan Manson, basse de violon; Peter McCarthy, contrabasso di gamba; Elizabeth Kenny, Richard Sweeney, chitarrone; Robert Howarth, organ

[II] La Capella Ducale; Musica Fiata
Dir: Roland Wilson

rec: Oct 22, 2011 (live), Cologne, Trinitatiskirche
PanClassics - PC 10240 (© 2011) (81'58")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list

[CD] (coro I) Monika Mauch, Dorothee Miels, soprano; Rolf Ehlers, tenor; Markus Brutscher, Hans Jörg Mammel, tenor; Markus Flaig, bass; (coro II) Constanze Backes, Veronika Winter, soprano; Alexander Schneider, alto; Hermann Oswald, Georg Poplutz, tenor; Stephan Schreckenberger, bass
[MF] (coro III) Anette Sichelschmidt, Christine Moran, violin; Christian Volke, violin, alto viola; Andreas Pilger, tenore viola; Julie Maas, bassetto viola; Barbara Kernig, basso viola; Hartwig Groth, violone, lirone; Axel Wolf, chitarrone; Johanna Seitz, arpa doppia; Christoph Lehmann, organ; (coro IV) Thomas Kügler, Darja Großheide, fiffaro, flauto; Frithjof Smith, Gebhard David, Josue Melendez, cornett; Detlef Reimers, Cas Gevers, Peter Sommer, sackbut; Michael Freimuth, Michael Dücker, chitarrone; Klaus Eichhorn, organ

It is not long ago that I wrote a review about a recording of Monteverdi's Vespro della Beata Vergine with the Choir of New College Oxford, under the direction of Edward Higginbottom. In his liner-notes Higginbottom summed up the various questions which a performer of this musical monument has to deal with. The main questions are whether this work was meant as a unity or rather a compilation of pieces a musical director could choose from, which instruments are to be used and when, how many singers should be involved, and at what pitch should the Vepers be performed. The answers vary from one recording to the other, and that guarantees that there are few recordings which are more or less the same. The two recordings to be reviewed here are pretty close in some respects, but also show some essential differences.

La Capella Ducale comprises 12 singers and 21 instrumentalists, the Choir of the Enlightenment 22 singers and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment 16 players. In Robert Howarth's performance some members of the choir also perform the solos, whereas in Roland Wilson's recording the various solo parts are divided over all the singers of La Capella Ducale. Both perform the Vespers at the high pitch which was common in Northern Italy, a=465/466 Hz. In both recordings Lauda Jerusalem and the Magnificat are transposed down. It is common practice these days to transpose a fourth. Wilson chose different transpositions: the Magnificat is transposed down a minor third, Lauda Jerusalem one tone.

Both recordings present the music by Monteverdi as printed, without a liturgical setting. The only exception is the Magnificat in Howarth's recording, which is preceded by Monteverdi's Exultent caeli and followed by the Sonata II for violin and bc by Giovanni Battista Fontana. These are included as substitutions for the antiphons. This is a rather odd decision: why should the Magnificat be embraced by antiphons, whereas the Psalms have to do without? Moreover, as far as I know only the plainchant antiphon which followed a Psalm or the Magnificat could be substituted by a free sacred work or an instrumental piece, not the antiphon which preceded it.

There is something special about the recording by La Capella Ducale and Musica Fiata. Roland Wilson believes that the whole Vespers are conceived as a piece for double choir. Here Monteverdi links up with the tradition of alternatim performances of plainchant. "An examination of the printed part books shows us that in total twelve singers, divided into two groups of six (SSATTB), are required. (...) The symmetry of the two six-part vocal groups is mirrored by a six-part string ensemble and a six-part wind ensemble, and these forces - plus a large continuo group - match up with the forces available to Monteverdi at the Mantuan court. Obviously there would have been performances in the 17th century with lesser numbers (...), but I would argue that the symmetrical disposition of four six-part choirs - two vocal and two instrumental - is fundamental to Monteverdi's conception of the work as a whole and to the form of all of the psalms".

Several psalms show the traces of alternatim performance practice. Dixit Dominus is for six voices, but the character of the verses is clearly different, with some "set as falsi bordoni (recitation over a chord) alternating with verses using free counterpoint over the cantus firmus". By using two choirs these contrasts come clearly to the fore, unlike in Robert Howarth's performance. Falso bordone was a common practice, and Monteverdi used it right at the start of his Vespers, in the responsory Domine ad adiuvandum me festina. Two contrasting groups are also used in Laetatus sum, also for six voices, "but again the composition implies two groups, with odd-numbered verses using a walking bass alternating with the even ones which are sometimes allowed more rhythmic freedom with virtuosic coloraturas over a sustained bass note". The double choir structure is also practiced in various other pieces, like the concerti. The two sopranos in Pulchra es are from different choirs, the first tenor in Duo Seraphim is from the first choir, the other two from the second. The same happens in the duets from the Magnificat. In Audi coelum the tenor and the echo are from the same choir, though. Here and in 'Gloria Patri' from the Magnificat the echo is sung from far away. I wonder whether that is required by Monteverdi. Assuming Wilson is correct in his double choir approach, wouldn't it be more plausible to place the echo in the second choir?

As far as the approach to the Vespro della Beata Vergine is concerned, Roland Wilson offers a real alternative to the many recordings which are already available. In comparison, Robert Howarth's performance is rather conventional. From a musical point of view the performance of La Capella Ducale and Musica Fiata is far superior to the British recording. The singers of La Capella Ducale are stylistically much more convincing than the Choir of the Enlightenment. The solo parts are better sung, and the blending of the voices is much better as well. In comparison the ensemble of the Choir of the Enlightenment leaves something to be desired. The solo concertos are mostly far too slow, in particular Nigra sum. The trilli in Duo Seraphim are not always technically flawless. Robert Howarth's performance is dynamically rather flat, and rhythmically not very engaging. There is more and better ornamentation in Wilson's recording, and the instrumental performances are more colourful. Lastly, the acoustical circumstances in the latter's recording are more satisfying; Kings Place seems too dry for music like this which needs some space in order to really blossom. A slip of the tongue at the start of the Magnificat should have been corrected: "exaltavit" is really not the same as "exultavit".

Considering the number of recordings of Monteverdi's Vespers which are available, Roland Wilson's recording is a valuable addition to the catalogue, Robert Howarth's is not.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Musica Fiata
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

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