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

[I] "Vespers"
Cantar Lontano
Dir: Marco Mencoboni
rec: Dec 3 - 4, 2009 (live), Mantua, Basilica Palatin di Santa Barbara
Pan Classics - PC 10371 (2 CDs) (© 2017) (1.29'07")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

[soli] Asia D'Arcangelo, Roberta Mameli, Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli, Lia Serafini, soprano; Elena Carzaniga, contralto; Andrea Arrivabene, Iacopo Facchini, alto; Luca Dordolo, Gianpaolo Fagotto, Raffaele Giordani, Simone Sorini, tenor; Mauro Borgioni, Marco Scavazza, tenor; Matteo Bellotto, Walter Testolin, bass
Mauro Borgioni; Massimo Altieri, Angelo De Poli, Martino Fedini, Matteo Milanato, plainchant

[II] "Vespro della Beata Vergine"
Ensemble San Felice; La Pifarescha
Dir: Federico Bardazzi
rec: Oct 2 - 5, 2011, Bagno A Ripoli, FI, Antico Spedale del Bigallo
Brilliant Classics - 95188 (2 CDs) (© 2016) (1.29'00")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

[soli] Laura Andreini, Cecilia Cazzato, Elena Cecchi Fedi, Lucia Focardi, soprano; Myra Fracassini, contralto; Floriano D'Auria, alto; Massimo Crispi, Davide Fior, Baltazar Zuniga, tenor; Luca Gallo, Giovanni Guerini, Leonardo Sagliocca, bass
Cecilia Cazzato, Leonardo Sagliocca, Laura Andreini, Federico Bardazzi, Rachael Birthisel, Luisa Cipolla, Davide Fior, Lucia Focardi, Marco Di Manno, Francesco Tribioli, plainchant

[III] "Vespro della Beata Vergine"
The Monteverdi Choir; Les Pages du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles; The English Baroque Soloists
Dir: John Eliot Gardiner
rec: 2014 (live), Paris, Versailles, Chapelle Royale
Alpha - 705 (© 2015) (1.42'30")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E/F; no subtitles
Cover & track-list

[soli] Silvia Frigato, Emanuela Galli, soprano; Raffaele Pè, alto; Krystian Adam, Nicholas Mulroy, Gareth Treseder, tenor; Alexander Ashworth, Robert Davies, bass

[IV] "Vespers of 1610"
The Sixteen
Dir: Harry Christophers
rec: March 31 - April 3, 2014, London, St Augustine's Church, Kilburn
Coro - COR16126 (2 CDs) (© 2014) (1.34'05")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

[soli] Grace Davidson, Charlotte Mobbs, soprano; Jeremy Budd, Simon Berridge, Mark Dobell, tenor; Ben Davies, Eamonn Dougan, bass

[V] "Vespro della Beata Vergine"
La Compagnia del Madrigale; Cantica Symphonia; La Pifarescha
Dir: Giuseppe Maletto
rec: Sept 25 - 30 & Oct 2 - 3, 2016, Pinerolo, Basilica di San Maurizio
Glossa - GCD 922807 (2 CDs) (© 2017) (2.03'45")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

[LCDM] Rossana Bertini, Francesca Cassinari, soprano; Elena Carzaniga, contralto; Raffaele Giordani, Giuseppe Maletto, tenor; Daniele Carnovich, bass

One may wonder whether the commemoration of the birth or death of a composer makes sense. Composers who are not that well-known may profit from such a commemoration in that their oeuvre is given more attention. But in the case of Monteverdi it doesn't make any difference. One could probably say that every year is Monteverdi year, as his compositions regularly appear on disc and are frequently performed in concerts. His large-scale works are available in many recordings. That is also the case with the Vespro della Beata Vergine.

In this review I take a look at five different recordings which have been released in recent years. Some of them have been released as part of the commemoration of Monteverdi's birth in 1567, although only one (La Compagnia del Madrigale) was specifically recorded for the occasion. Pan Classics and Brilliant Classics took the Monteverdi year as an opportunity to release recordings of some years earlier. And John Eliot Gardiner's latest recording marks the 40th anniversary of the Monteverdi Choir, which was the direct product of his first performance of the Vespers in 1964.

The Vespro is one of Monteverdi's most interesting works, but also a composition which raises many questions, some of which may never be solved. It all starts with the question whether it was conceived as a unity or whether it is rather a collection of pieces from which maestri di cappella could select whatever they needed. The structure seems to point into the direction of the former, but it is impossible to prove. Other issues concern the use of instruments, the pitch, the number of singers for the tutti and the question whether Monteverdi's music should be performed within a liturgical framework.

The latter option was preferred in the early days of historical performance practice, for instance in the ground-breaking recording of Jürgen Jürgens and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. In recent years most performers seem to prefer a performance of only those pieces which Monteverdi has included in the printed edition of 1610, probably because every liturgical framework is necessarily highly speculative.

In the case of Monteverdi's Vespers it is often not a matter of 'right' or 'wrong' as far as the interpretation is concerned. Too many questions are still unanswered and Monteverdi does not give that many clues for a performance. Moreover, no performance in his own time has been documented. We even don't know whether he has ever performed it himself and, if so, where and when. This lack of information explains why there are almost as many interpretations as there are recordings. The five performances under scrutiny here attest to that.

The oldest recording is the one directed by Marco Mencoboni; it is a live recording dating from 2009, which never made it to disc. Mencoboni decided to perform the Vespers in the way of a liturgical reconstruction. In addition to the psalms, the concertos and the Magnificat from Monteverdi's pen, here every psalm is preceded by an antiphon in plainchant, before and after the Magnificat we hear Beata es Virgo Maria as an antiphona ad Magnificat, and the performance closes with the Oratio and the verso Benedicamus Domino.

However, this is not the main reason that this recording stands out from the crowd. A second notable feature is the choice of tempi. In his liner-notes Mencoboni argues that it has become a habit to treat the tempi in this work with considerable freedom. "In preparing the actual performance, we based it on the fixity of time or beat, taking for granted that - apart from the changes of time expressly written by Monteverdi - the beat, as it was usual at the time, wouldn't change from the beginning to the end of the piece". If Mencoboni indeed follows strictly what Monteverdi has written down - which I can't check as I don't have access to the score - we have to conclude that the composer required very strong contrasts in tempo.

However, that causes considerable problems in a large acoustic. That brings me to the third feature of this recording. It took place in the basilica Santa Barbara, which was part of the palace of the Gonzaga's. This allows the use of the large organ at the gallery, an instrument built by Antegnati in 1565. However, the acoustic is such that it is very complicated, often even impossible, to keep the musical discourse clear enough to follow the text and to prevent the various sounds overlapping each other. That is exactly what happens here. Nisi Dominus, for instance, is a pretty big mess; all the sounds of voices and instruments are mixed up. The spatial acoustic also results in the strings sounding from a far distance.

The use of instruments is one of the issues every performer has to deal with. Only in three pieces Monteverdi specifies the instruments needed: Domine ad adiuvandum, the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria and the Magnificat. Unspecified instruments are needed in Dixit Dominus and the hymn Ave maris stella. That does not mean that in other pieces instruments cannot be used. Adding instruments playing colla voce was common practice at the time. Here they are added in Nisi Dominus and Lauda Jerusalem. Sometimes they tend to overshadow the voices, again partly due to the acoustical circumstances.

I am a little in two minds about this performance. There are several aspects which are I really like. One of them is the singing: Mencoboni had some excellent singers at his disposal, and their performances are mostly very good. However, it is a bit disappointing that in the concertos for solo voices there is too little ornamentation, whereas in contrast the instruments add lots of it in the Magnificat. I would prefer it the other way around. The use of a large organ is definitely a bonus, certainly when the organ is as beautiful as the one in Mantua. The acoustic has a good effect in that it allows the instruments, which are played very well, to blossom, but as I have already said, it is too large to handle the very fast speeds in some of the psalms. The plainchant is nicely sung, but mostly rather slow. Something I definitely don't like - and don't understand - is that in some cases the psalm starts before the last note of the plainchant has been sung. I find that very odd.

Adding to my points of criticism, I am not convinced about Mencoboni's views on tempo. These seem rather speculative, and this is an aspect which deserves more investigation. In his liner-notes Mencoboni also deals with some aspects of text expression. He states that "a few cues could let us suppose that the composer might have looked more at the original Hebrew texts than at the Latin translations, not always precise, produced by the Catholic Church." However, later he admits that we don't know at all, if Monteverdi knew Hebrew. This is just another example of speculation, which makes little sense.

Part of the problem with liturgical reconstructions is that one has to decide what kind of feast one prefers. The Vespers don't give a specific indication in this regard. Mencoboni, in his liner-notes, doesn't touch the issue, nor does Federico Bardazzi in his. As it is not exactly clear, what kind of feast they had in mind, it is impossible to assess their choice of antiphons. The most interesting part of Bardazzi's reconstruction is the inclusion of the collects: "the brief orations that conclude the antiphon - psalm - antiphon structure in Vespers for the most solemn of celebrations on occasions like the one for which Monteverdi's composition was almost certainly intended." However, this immediately leads to what is the most unsatisfying part of the reconstruction. It was common practice at the time not to repeat the antiphon after the psalm and to perform a vocal or instrumental work as a substitute. In the case of the Vespers the concerti are generally considered to be included to that end. But here the antiphons are repeated. As a result the concerti don't have any liturgical function. They are considered here as "links connecting the psalms themselves". Fair enough, but that has nothing to do with a liturgical performance.

That is just one of the debatable decisions taken by Bardazzi. In most of the psalms he creates a pretty strong contrast between solo episodes and tutti, which is rather unnatural and breaks up the coherence within a piece. It is made even worse by the decision to perform the cantus firmus parts always with the full choir, even in solo sections, "to highlight their affinity with the plainchant of the antiphons". I don't see why that affinity needs a tutti performance of the cantus firmus.

One of the most controversial features is probably the use of percussion. Having admitted that "military drums were not allowed in churches" at the time, Bardazzi claims that "the very existence of a prohibition implies that the practice had already been fairly widespread. Moreover, we have documentary evidence of the use of percussion instruments in sacred music for the liturgy during the Counter-Reformation, particularly in Spain, but also in Italy. Furthermore, while the use of timpani (a pitched instrument) requires a dedicated musical part, the drum could simply be added, like the wind and string instruments, without needing a separate notated line and was often used for rhythmic ostinatos and to emphasize the syllabic or melodic stress of the polyphonic lines." It can be heard pretty frequently, and not in a modest way, but even with complete drum rolls at the end of some psalms and also at the end of Domine ad adiuvandum. Even if Bardazzi is right - I would like to see some of the "documentary evidence" to which he refers - that tells us absolutely nothing about whether it was used in any performance of Monteverdi's Vespers. And let's remember: there is no documentary evidence whatsoever about performances of this work, neither in Venice nor in Mantua.

Notwithstanding my reservations I was prepared to give this performance a chance. Maybe there were a number of things to enjoy. Unfortunately, there are very few things I like. The soloists are not really bad, but all in all they are rather disappointing. The sopranos in Pulchra es sing with a slight vibrato now and then, the tenors likewise; they also don't have very attractive voices. The ornamentation is not particularly imaginative, and is not always technically impeccable. The trilli in Duo Seraphim don't come off very well. The strong dynamic differences in the psalms are pretty annoying. What is even worse is that in some pieces the two channels are so strongly separated that you hear some passages only in one of them, at least with headphones. The worst case is Nisi Dominus which is scored for ten voices in two choirs. Here the sound moves from left to right, and when the two choirs join the sound moves towards the centre of the picture. This is clearly intentional, as the same happens in Ave maris stella.

John Eliot Gardiner has recorded the Vespers several times, and performed them even more frequently. In his liner-notes to the DVD production which was released by Alpha, he writes about his first fascination with this work and his attempts to perform it in a time, when not only the Vespers were new to most singers and instrumentalists, but even Monteverdi as a composer. We are talking about the 1960s here. It is a little odd that it was decided to include the notes, which were written for a performance in the chapel of King's College, Cambridge, where Gardiner's first Vespers performance also took place, whereas the recording was made in the Chapelle Royale in Versailles.

Like most performers these days Gardiner confines himself to the music written by Monteverdi. He also performs them in the order, in which they are included in the printed edition. In many ways I felt being carried back a couple of decades. Apart from the use of period instruments - which are played very well - this performance has little to do with historical performance practice. To begin with, it is very questonable whether a choir of thirty singers is in accordance with common practice in Monteverdi's time. In addition, Les Pages du Centre de Musique baroque de Versailles - a group of 23 boys and girls in the soprano range - participate in the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria, the hymn Ave maris stella and the Magnificat. I can't see any reason for that, and as a result the total number of singers exceeds anything composers, performers and audiences may ever have seen in Monteverdi's time.

Gardiner is rather inconsistent in his use of instruments. I don't see any reason why in Laetatus sum the instruments should only be used in the doxology. Overall this recording is marred by odd decisions which seem to be driven by Gardiner's own preferences rather than historical considerations. The concerto Duo Seraphim is scored for three solo voices. But the phrase "Plena est omnis terra gloria eius" (the whole earth is full of his glory) is sung by the tenors of the choir. To make things worse, the soloists and the choir are on opposite sides of the chapel. The cantus firmus in the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria is sung by the Pages. Then why is the last phrase suddenly given to the Monteverdi Choir?

From a stylistic point of view there are many aspects which are highly questionable. In most of the tutti parts - especially the Psalms - there are pretty extreme contrasts in tempo and dynamics, and these are mostly rather unnatural. In particular the doxologies are very slow, and the closing chords are sometimes held extremely long, such as the "Amen" in Nisi Dominus. Also odd is the extreme length of the "veni" in Nigra sum. The echo in Audi coelum is supposed to be an exact repetition of the first statement, but that is not always the case. The solo episodes are marred by a pretty heavy vibrato from most of the soloists, especially Krystian Adam and Gareth Treseder. The two sopranos are by far the best, but - the disadvantage of a DVD production - I find the gestures of Silvia Frigato annoying and completely out of place in a work like this.

Like Gardiner Harry Christophers only performs Monteverdi's own pieces. He is rather modest in his addition of instruments, and only uses them where Monteverdi requires them. The exception is, again, Laetatus sum, where the instruments enter in the doxology. Is this a kind of habit among performers? Giuseppe Maletto does the same (more about his recording below).

So far I have not touched the issue of pitch. That is a very specialist matter, and causes still much controversy. It has been argued by Andrew Parrot that the chiavette which Monteverdi uses in the Lauda Jerusalem and the Magnificat require a downward transposition of a fourth. That is what is practised in many recordings these days. In the recordings reviewed here Mencoboni follows this practice, whereas in Bardazzi's and Gardiner's recordings these pieces are sung at high pitch. Christophers took the decision to offer those pieces in different versions. Lauda Jerusalem and the Magnificat are performed twice: once at the pitch in which they are printed (high), the other in the transposed version (low). That is interesting as it offers the opportunity to compare them, but I am not impressed by Christophers reasoning. "For this recording I decided to include both versions, one at high pitch and one at low, so that you the listener can determine your own preference". The listener may prefer whatever he likes, but in the end it doesn't really matter: historical performance practice is not about personal preferences, but about what was common practice at the time the music was written. The only 'correct' reason to include both versions is that there are, in the view of the performer, good arguments in favour of both. It is not the task of a reviewer to take a particular position here. However, I find the performance at high pitch unnatural and musically unstatisfying, as the tenors sound rather stretched. And let's not forget that Christophers opted for a pitch of a=440 Hz. Other conductors prefer a higher pitch: a=465 Hz. Such a pitch makes the 'high' version outright impossible to sing.

Christopher's performance is rather average, certainly not bad, but not very good either. There is nothing here to get really excited about, which in a work of this character is rather disappointing. The singing is mostly alright: the soloists are competent, although a bit uneven. The two sopranos are pretty good in Pulchra es, although the tempo is rather slow and there is not enough ornamentation. The latter features also go for the concerto Nigra sum. The singing is a bit rigid and the vibrato doesn't make things better; in Ave maris stella Eamonn Dougan is guilty of that problem, which recurs in so many early music recordings of our time. Audi coelum is one of the most intriguing pieces ever written, but here Jeremy Budd is so-so, and there is no magic in this performance whatsoever. The solo voices in Duo Seraphim are pretty good, but again the tempo is too slow, and the word "clamabant" is dynamically too flat. In the psalms the slight vibrato in some of the voices has a damaging effect, but overall these are alright. Sometimes the text is hard to understand, for instance in Lauda Jerusalem.

The last recording is the only one specifically connected to the Monteverdi year. La Compagnia del Madrigale is, as the name indicates, a madrigal ensemble in the first place. It usually sings such pieces with one voice per part, and the same way it has taken care of Gesualdo's Responsoria of 1611. This is their first recording with a larger ensemble. Its director, Giuseppe Maletto, has had a hard look at Monteverdi's Vespers and comes up with answers and solutions of his own in regard to the several issues which need to be dealt with. I will not go into detail about them, as the booklet is available for download and the liner-notes extensively quote Maletto, explaining his views.

Interesting are his views on the architecture of the Vespers and the various psalms and concertos. He compares, for instance, the tenor soloist in the concerto Audi coelum with Orpheus in Monteverdi's opera; Maletto is convinced that the Vespers were written for performance in Mantua, and that could explain the way this piece has been written.

As far as the pitch is concerned, he believes that there are historical arguments for a pitch of a=440 Hz. As a result the Magnificat is transposed a minor third downwards and Lauda Jerusalem a single tone. Maletto has taken some decisions of his own in regard to singers and instrumentalists. Notable is that he opted for female singers in the alto range for reasons of blending with the instruments. The line-up in the basso continuo is different, according to the character of the piece. In Pulchra es the organ is replaced by a harp. In pieces which require "a grander effect", as Maletto puts it, a violone is added, "considering that plucked-string instruments such as the lute or chitarrone played along with the organ would barely be audible in the acoustic of a very large church". This is the immediate effect of his view that the Vespers were written for Mantua. However, the title-page refers also to "princely chapels or apartments", which means that they also can be sung in more intimate acoustical circumstances. But it is praiseworthy that he takes the consequences of his position in this matter.

The issue where this recording differs from most others is the choice of tempi. Maletto argues in favour of slow tempi, legato singing and narrow dynamic differences. He refers to Monteverdi, "who, in letter dated May 1, 1627, wrote: 'haste and good work do not go together.'" The tempi are slow indeed. Let's compare them with those in Mencoboni's performance. Dixit Dominus: 9'42" vs 7'26", Duo Seraphim: 7'12" vs 5'03", Magnificat: 21'09" vs 15'35". This is one of the issues I have problems with. I find the tempi often unnatural; in some pieces one feels that the music comes almost to a standstill. As far as the concertos is concerned, I wonder how the slow tempi, the legato singing and the modesty in dynamic shading is reconcilable with the then ideal of recitar cantando. In addition, there is no ornamentation in the vocal parts. "[We] have decided with the vocal parts, to comply strictly with the precise text of Monteverdi, who took care to write down himself all the necessary ornaments. We think therefore that it is impossible, and even harmful, to try and make more attractive an already perfect music." This is another matter of debate. The view that Monteverdi did write down all the necessary ornaments seems hard to prove. I find it rather odd to hear a concerto like Nigra sum without any ornaments, especially in the repeated sections.

Some aspects of this interpretation may be questionable, the performances are outstanding. One won't hear often such fine singing of all participants, in the solo parts as well as the tutti. The playing of the instruments is also excellent. One of the nice things in this recording is its inner consistency. Whatever one thinks about the decisions Maletto has taken, they are defended here with great persuasiveness. And this performance also gives much food for thought. That is certainly also the case with Menoboni's recording. In the end, despite my questions about decisions taken in regard to interpretation, these two are substantial additions to the discography. It is a nice bonus that Maletto also offers a performance of the alternative version of the Magnificat.

In comparison Christophers doesn't make much of an impression. It is a solid performance for those who are not overly critical in regard to historical performance practice. That said, the juxtaposition of Lauda Jerusalem and the Magnificat in two pitches is certainly interesting. Bardazzi's interpretation has also some interesting aspects, but these are not worked out convincingly and the quality of the singing leaves something to be desired. The addition of percussion is the most annoying aspect of that recording. However, it is by far not as annoying as Gardiner's performance. There was nothing I enjoyed; most of the time it greatly annoyed me. If historical performance practice really matters to you, stay away from it.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Cantar Lontano
Cantica Symphonia
Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles
Ensemble San Felice
La Compagnia del Madrigale
La Pifarescha
The Monteverdi Choir & English Baroque Soloists
The Sixteen

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