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

Ludus Modalis
Dir: Bruno Boterf

rec: Oct 2017, Pranzac (F), Eglise Saint Cybar
Ramée - RAM 1702 (2 CDs) (© 2018) (90'37")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Anne Magouët, Kaoli Isshiki-Didier, Edwige Parat, Alice Duport-Percier, Mélusine de Pas, superius; Corinne Bahuaud, Alice Habellion, altus; Bruno Boterf, Vincent Bouchot, Serge Goubioud, tenor; Matthieu Heim, Jean-Claude Sarragosse, Benoît Descamps, bassus
Volny Hostiou, bass cornett; Franck Poitrineau, bass sackbut; Mélusine de Pas, bass viol; Jean-Luc Ho, harpsichord; Anne-Marie Blondel, organ

There is no end to the production of recordings of Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610. Only recently I reviewed interpretations by John Butt and Philippe Herreweghe. Not did I expect to receive another recording only a couple of weeks after writing that review. However, considering that the present recording, directed by Bruno Boterf, is fundamentally different from those two, there are good reasons to review it separately. It sheds light on a part of performance practice which is largely ignored.

Also recently I reviewed a recording of two pieces which were part of the edition Monteverdi published in 1610: the Missa In illo tempore and the Magnificat a 6. The latter is an 'alternative' to the Magnificat a 7, which is part of the Vespro della Beata Vergine. In my review I noted that the 6-part version for voices and basso continuo is seldom performed and recorded. That is disappointing for musical reasons in the first place. However, this version of the Magnificat also reveals that Monteverdi took into account that not every maestro di cappella had the instruments required for the 7-part version at his disposal. Interestingly, Monteverdi noted at the start of the Dixit Dominus in the basso continuo part: "Ritornellos may be performed or omitted as desired". This indicates that he considered a performance of the entire Vespers with voices and basso continuo alone a legitimate option. That is how this work is performed by Ludus Modalis.

This ensemble focuses on music written in the stile antico. The approach to the Vespers it has chosen for this recording, brings this work much closer to the style of the 16th century than a performance with instruments. As Boterf states in his notes in the booklet: " The relative modesty of the forces used here gives our version a more human aspect and brings it musically closer to the polyphonic world of Palestrina and the Franco-Flemish masters to whom Monteverdi was the heir." If performed this way, there is much less difference between the Vespers and the Missa In illo tempore. Clément Stagnol, in his liner-notes, even suggests that the versions without instruments may have been the original ones: "[The] possibility is not to be excluded that Monteverdi added the instrumental parts of his motets or concerti sacri after composing the pieces."

Obviously the omission of instruments has some consequences. That goes especially for the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria. This is a piece for eight instruments and basso continuo, above which the soprano sings the cantus firmus. In this recording Monteverdi's setting has been replaced by an organ piece by Girolamo Frescobaldi, the Recercar con obligo di cantar la quinta parte senza toccarla. This piece in five parts includes a part which needs to be sung. Frescobaldi did not add a text, and in some performances the notes are sung in solmization. However, it is perfectly possible to sing them on the text of Monteverdi's Sonata: "Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis". This is the way it is performed here; the cantus firmus is sung by the sopranos. In the Vespers the Sonata is followed by another piece in which instruments play a major role, the hymn Ave maris stella. They play the ritornellos between the various stanzas. Here these are performed by the organ or other instruments. One could argue that Boterf is not entirely consistent here: why not omit the ritornellos?

That brings me to the role of instruments, because this performance does not omit all instruments. As Stagnol writes, "a cappella vocal music of the Seicento does not preclude instrumental doublings, a common practice since the second half of the sixteenth century according to the liturgical usages and the resources at the disposal of the institution." In this recording only instruments in the bass range are used: a viola da gamba, a bass sackbut and a bass cornett. The latter is a very uncommon instrument; however, it must have been used, as a specimen is preserved at the Musée de la Musique in Paris. Again, this raises questions about the consistency of this performance, considering that this 'bare version' may have been intended for maestri di cappella, who had no instruments of this kind at their disposal. However, the heart of the basso continuo section are the keyboard instruments. Boterf uses two harpsichords, one gut-strung and one brass-strung, as well as an Italian-type organ: a larger organ than those mostly used in this kind of music, modelled on 17th-century Italian instruments. It has a strong presence in the ensemble, and contributes to the Italian flavour of this recording.

Like John Butt in his recording of the Vespers, Boterf opts more or less for a one-to-a-part performance, taking the Nisi Dominus, which requires ten voices, as the starting point. However, as the soprano parts are almost always doubled, the total number of singers involved is a little larger (13).

Lastly, we have to deal with the liturgical aspects of the Vespers. Once again, there are questions about the consistency of Boterf's approach. Stagnol argues that "Monteverdi's book presents the originality of not being intended for a particular ceremony in the liturgical calendar." The five Psalms, the hymn and the Magnificat are suitable for any Marian feast. Some of them are also connected to Saturday or Sunday Vespers. "Monteverdi would not necessarily have expected all the motets to be executed at a single Vesper celebration. Nevertheless, the organisation of the collection reveals an internal liturgical coherence in the order of succession of the psalms, which remain obligatory, unlike the concerti sacri." It did not withhold Boterf from performing the Vespers in a liturgical setting. The antiphons have been chosen from the Office of the Common of the Blessed Virgin. They embrace the Psalms, which raises the question what exactly is the function of the concerti. They are often considered substitutes for the repetition of the antiphon. However, according to Stagnol, "they are more likely to have been performed in addition to them, as an embellishment of the liturgy of Vespers." So we get both of them here: after a Psalm we hear a repetition of the antiphon, and then a concerto.

I have already indicated that this is a recording of great importance: Monteverdi's Vespers are hardly ever performed without the use of the instruments which are so characteristic of his time: cornetts, sackbuts and violins. As Bruno Boterf stated, this performance with voices and basso continuo offers a different perspective and broadens our image of Monteverdi's world. At the same time, it seems to me that he could have gone further in returning, as it were, to the very heart of the Vespers, for instance by omitting any other instrument than keyboard, probably with an additional string bass. I also noted a certain inconsistency with regard to the liturgical aspects of this work.

That does in no way devalue my appreciation of this recording, especially as the singing is excellent. The singers are in very good form in their solos, and the written-out ornamentation, for instance in Duo Seraphim, receives immaculate performances. The interpretation of Audi coelum is notable: the echo is always performed by a second voice, placed far in the background. This is highly questionable, as the piece's title clearly indicates that it is for one solo voice: ad una voce sola, poi nella fine à sei voci. In this recording the solo part is still divided over two voices, but they are much closer than in any recording I have heard. Maybe Boterf should have gone a step further and perform this part with one singer. As far as the solo contributions are concerned, there is just one disappointment: there is no improvised ornamentation in the solo concertos. I consider that a serious shortcoming.

As one may expect from a group of singers versed in music written in the stile antico, the ensemble leaves nothing to be desired, and the voices blend immaculately. The instrumentalists are also outstanding, and the important role of the organ is one of this recording's assets.

For many Monteverdi lovers this kind of performance may feel like a cold shower, as they are used to the colours of instruments, either in obbligato parts or playing colla voce. I would urge them to give this approach a chance. Over the years I have heard many different performances, some very good, others rather disappointing. It is a difficult piece to perform and there are hardly any recordings that are entirely satisfying. This one isn't either. However, if I would make a list of recordings according to the quality of the interpretation, this particular performance would definitely land in the upper echelon.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

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