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

Himlische Cantorey; Knabenchor Hannover; Vox Werdensis; Concerto Palatino; Musica Alta Ripa
Dir: Jörg Breiding

rec: May 24, 2010 (live), Hildesheim, St. Michaeliskirche
Rondeau - ROP7012/13 (2 CDs) (© 2011) (1.33'35")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translation: D
Cover & track-list

[HC] Veronika Winter, Gerlinde Sämann, soprano; Henning Voss, alto; Jan Kobow, Georg Poplutz, Nils Ole Peters, tenor; Michael Jäckel, Ralf Grobe, bass
[KH, solo] Daniel Bühl, soprano
[VW] Georg Drake, Nils Ole Peters, Michael Jäckel, Sebastian Piel, Stefan Klöckner
[CP] Bruce Dickey, Doron David Sherwin, cornett; Charles Toet, Joost Swinkels, Simen Van Mechelen, sackbut
[MAR] Danya Segal, Stefan Möhle, recorder; Anne Röhrig, Ursula Bundies, violin; Eva Pollit, viola; Hartwig Groth, violone; Ulrich Wedemeier, Dennis Götte, lute; Bernward Lohr, harpsichord, organ

The Vespro della Beata Vergine by Claudio Monteverdi is one of the great monuments in musical history, comparable with, for instance, Bach's B minor Mass and Mozart's Requiem. These three works have also in common that there are many unanswered questions about why and in exactly which form they have been conceived. There is no documentary evidence about a performance of Monteverdi's Vespers in his own time. Therefore we don't know if it was intended as a unity or rather as a collection from which pieces could be chosen at will.

There are various questions regarding performance practice which are answered in different ways and which result in strongly different performances. The present recording is a liturgical performance, meaning that every Psalm is preceded by an antiphon in plainchant. There was a time that this was common practice, but the recordings I have reviewed recently mostly omit any liturgical context. The booklet doesn't mention from which source the antiphons have been taken nor for what kind of feast they were chosen. Another 'old-fashioned' aspect, as it were, is the use of a choir in most of the tutti episodes. Today the Vespers are mostly performed with a relatively small vocal ensemble, and or even with solo voices. The problem is once again that we can't be sure how many singers Monteverdi may have in mind for a performance of this work. The booklet doesn't mention the number of singers in the Knabenchor Hannover, but it sounds as if it is quite big. In the San Marco in Venice, for instance, the maestro di cappella probably had a relatively large ensemble at his disposal, but we can't be sure that he always used the full forces. Even so, it is unlikely that he had as many singers as the number involved here. In the booklet it is claimed that Monteverdi also made use of a choir of boys and men. That seems an over-simplified statement: it is more likely that at least part of the upper voices were sung by adult male singers, either natural sopranos or castratos.

The use of a vocal ensemble for the solo parts and a choir of boys and men for the tutti may seem less than ideal, and a smaller ensemble of boys and men, whose members are also able to perform the solo parts certainly is the ideal. Apparently that was no option; fortunately there is not much of a contrast between the Himlische Cantorey and the choir, due to the sound of the soloists and their attempts to blend with the choir, but also due to the qualities of the Knabenchor Hannover which makes an excellent impression throughout this recording. Despite its size it is quite flexible and does well in the declamatory passages in the Psalms.

Let us look at various pieces from this work in more detail. Immediately in the intonatio Deus in adiutorium we notice the fine articulation of the choir. The ritornellos show the skills of the two instrumental ensembles. The antiphon is sung by another specialist group, Vox Werdensis. They seem to be placed somewhere in the background as they have not much presence. The ensemble sings well but it is an interesting question how the plainchant should be performed. I tend to think that in Monteverdi's time plainchant was probably treated in the same way as newly composed music, and therefore sung with dynamic contrasts and maybe even ornaments.

In Dixit Dominus the Knabenchor Hannover shows its skills in declamatory singing. Parts of the text of this Psalm are quite dramatic and that comes off well in this performance. The soloists add some ornamentation to their parts. Georg Poplutz gives an impressive account of the concerto Nigra sum. There is a right amount of dynamic shading as well as ornamentation. Not every single ornament seems to be well-chosen, though. Like this text Pulchra es also comes from the Song of Songs but has a greater amount of exaltation. That is not fully exposed by Veronika Winter and Gerlinde Sämann, who otherwise give a beautiful rendition of this duet.

Laetatus sum is partly based on a basso ostinato which is quite pregnant in this performance. The concerto Duo Seraphim is beautifully sung, but probably a bit too slow. The trilli are often a problem for singers, but not here: all three tenors perform them immaculately. Nisi Dominus is sung by the choir, without any participation of the soloists. The Knabenchor Hannover sings with great rhythmic precision and in a perfectly declamatory manner. The concerto Audi coelum is then performed by solo voices only, including the tutti episodes. Considering the basically monodic character of this piece that seems absolutely right. It gets a beautiful reading here, with excellent interplay between Jan Kobow and Georg Poplutz as his echo. The ornamentation is stylish; Kobow's slight vibrato is a small minus, here and elsewhere, but not really damaging. Lauda Jerusalem is again for the choir; this should have been a little more transparent.

The Sonata sopra Sancta Maria is the perfect vehicle for Concerto Palatino, the world's best ensemble of its kind. It returns in Ave maris stella where it plays the ritornelli, in alternation with Musica Alta Ripa. They are generous in their ornamentation. This is the only part of this work where one of the members of the choir acts as a soloist: Daniel Bühl sings one of the verses and does so quite well. With the Magnificat Monteverdi's masterpiece comes to a glorious close. Here all the participants can be admired once again: vocal soloists, choir and instrumental ensembles. The tempi are well-chosen, and none of the soloists sound overstretched.

Despite the fact that I believe that the Knabenchor Hannover is too big for a work like this and despite some details which I am less happy with I am very pleased with and impressed by this recording. My admiration is all the greater if we consider that this is a live recording. In the studio some moments may have been corrected, but it probably would have gone at the cost of a lively interaction between all the participants. This is a nice memory for all who have attended this performance, but it is more than that. In the category of interpretations with soloists and a choir this is definitely one of the best recordings available.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Concerto Palatino
Himlische Cantorey
Knabenchor Hannover
Musica Alta Ripa
Vox Werdensis

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