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Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567 - 1643): Vespro della Beata Vergine, 1610

Choir of New College, Oxford; Charivari Agréable
Dir: Edward Higginbottom

rec: July 13 - 16 & 22 - 23, 2009, Oxford, St Michael's Church, Summertown
Novum - NCR 1382 (2 CDs) (© 2010) (1.30'35")

Deus in adiutorium meumf; Dixit Dominusabeh; Nigra sumg; Laudate pueriacfgjl; Pulchra esac; Laetatus sumabdfgk; Duo Seraphimfgi; Nisi Dominus; Audi coelumfg; Lauda Jerusalem; Sonata sopra Sancta Maria; Ave maris stellaabg; Magnificatacfgjk

[favoriti] Sebastian Coxa, Hugh Cuttingb, James Swashc, treble; Stephen Taylor, altod; Guy Cuttinge, Thomas Hobbsf, Nicholas Mulroyg, Nicholas Pritchardh, Thomas Raskini, tenor; Thomas Edwardsj, Jonathan Howardk, Duncan Saundersonl, bass
[ripienisti] Nathaniel Hess, Horatio Holloway, Philip Parker, Joshua Ridley, Hector Stinton, Oscar Talbot, treble; Dominic Burnham, Richard Poyser, Alexander Pullinger, alto; James Brown, Alex Clissold-Jones, tenor; Nicholas Daly, Max Jones, Christopher Marlow, bass
[Collegium Novum trebles] Dominic Baum, Edmund Breen, Nicholas Doll, Hugh Finnerty, Tom Montgomery, Carl Olavesen, Theo Ross, Edward Swash, Jonty Ward
[Charivari Agréable] Adrian Woodward, cornett, pifarro; Jamie Savan, cornett, mute cornett, pifarro; Sam Goble, mute cornett; Philip Dale, Claire McIntyre, Tom Lees, Andrew Harwood-White, sackbut; Oliver Webber, Persephone Gibbs, Hazel Brooks, violin; Heather Birt, Thomas Kirby, viola; Gareth Deats, cello; Elizabeth Harré, contrabasso; Manuel Minguillon Nieto, chitarrone; Kah-Ming Ng, Steven Grahl, organ

The Vespro della Beata Vergine by Claudio Monteverdi is one of the monuments in music history. Monuments are usually the subject of thorough investigation, and that is also the case here. Ironically, such an investigation tends to raise more questions than can be answered. In his liner notes to this recording Edward Higginbottom sums them up. At what pitch should this work be performed, how many singers should be used, where and how many instruments should be used? And then there is always the question of how exactly Monteverdi meant this work to be presented: was it a collection of pieces from which a maestro di cappella could take whatever he needed, or is it written as a coherent liturgical unity? The many recordings of the Vespers reflect the many and various answers to these questions.

There are good arguments in favour of most answers. And as long as there is no firm historical evidence none of these answers are 'right' or 'wrong'. In most cases the decisions taken by Edward Higginbottom make sense. To mention them briefly: the music is performed here as it is printed in the collection, without any additional liturgical chants. Only in some cases Monteverdi specifically requires instruments. Although it was common practice in Italy to add instruments to play colla voce this practice has not been followed: where no instruments are required or suggested the choir is accompanied by basso continuo only. In his notes on the performance Higginbottom doesn't deal with the scoring of the basso continuo. In this performance it is rather modest, with only organ and chitarrone, whereas in some other recordings they are joined by a string bass, and sometimes also a harp and a harpsichord or a second organ. In this recording the vocal scoring is basically one voice per part, with ripieno voices added where that is felt appropriate. The upper voices are sung by trebles; in Monteverdi's time these were likely shared by castratos, falsettos and trebles.

The only aspect where I find Higginbottom's decision questionable is the issue of pitch. He acknowledges that there is strong evidence that in Veneto the pitch was relatively high, and some performers adopt A=465', but Higginbottom has decided for 440' instead. There may be some good arguments for that, but his statement that in some sections the music becomes shrill with a high pitch doesn't convince me. Only last year I heard a performance in this high pitch, and I didn't notice any shrillness at all.

This recording has a number of virtues. The very fact that the solo parts are sung by members of the choir - the favoriti - guarantees a strong coherence between soli and tutti. This is without any doubt in accordance with the way religious music was performed in Monteverdi's days: the split between soloists and choir is unhistorical. This practice also results in an excellent blending of the voices in the concertos and the episodes for two or three voices from the Psalms. The Choir of New College has a very beautiful and strong sound, with considerable transparency. The delivery of the choir and the soloists is generally quite good. The instrumental parts are brilliantly played by Charivari Agreáble. The strings and the cornetts are equally impressive, and in various sections they show their skills in regard to ornamentation.

That said, this performance is not entirely satisfying. Firstly, the tempi are mostly moderate. One may argue that the text of Audi coelum justifies the rather slow tempo. But for the most part I find the chosen tempi too slow. That is in particular the case in the concerto Nigra sum which is slower than any recording I know. The Psalms could have been sung a little faster too. And when this would have gone together with stronger dynamic accents on the good notes the rhythmic pulse would have been better exposed than is the case here. The tempi at the second disc, with the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria, Ave maris stella and the Magnificat, are more convincing.

Dynamically I find these performances too flat: there are too many long notes with hardly any dynamic gradation. In this regard I notice a difference between the vocal and the instrumental parts. That is also the case in regard to ornamentation, for instance in Ave maris stella. It is a sequence of seven verses, with instrumental ritornellos ad libitum. The first three verses are for the tutti, verses 4 to 6 are for a single voice, and the seventh is for tutti again. Whereas the instrumentalists add ornaments to their parts, the three soloists - two trebles and a tenor - don't apply any ornamentation. I find that rather odd, in particular as the material of the verses is the same - this really begs for variation through ornamentation.

The very issue of ornamentation is a matter of debate in music of Monteverdi's time. We know that performers were expected to add ornaments. At the same time various composers warned against exaggeration. Nicholas Mulroy is moderate in this respect in Nigra sum, and some may believe he has got it just right. But in Pulchra es Sebastian Cox and James Swash hardly add any ornaments at all, and that is disappointing.

The quality of the soloists is beyond doubt: they have all very nice voices which are well suited for this kind of repertoire, and they generally give good accounts. But I am surprised by the amount of vibrato in some of the trebles' voices, in particular Sebastian Cox's and Hugh Cutting's. It is not nice, and I wonder if they can't do without. If so, that seems to me a matter of serious concern. If they can, their performances should have been corrected through another recording session. It really takes away some of the virtues of their contributions to this recording. Thomas Hobbs is also not without vibrato, and the intonation in Deus in adiutorium suffers from it. But in Audi coelum he sings really well.

Time to sum up. This is a good recording which has many virtues and makes good listening. But unfortunately it also has some serious flaws. If you look for a recording with only male voices, then you don't need to look further. The scoring makes it an interesting alternative to what is on the market. But as this interpretation doesn't fully explore the qualities of Monteverdi's music I can't put it at the top of my list.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Choir of New College, Oxford
Charivari Agréable

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