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Concert reviews

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

La Risonanza
Dir: Fabio Bonizzoni
concert: Feb 18, 2010, Utrecht, Jacobikerk

Monica Piccinini, Laura Antonaz, soprano; Andrea Arrivabene, Elena Carzaniga, alto; Cristian Błgnola, Gianluca Ferrarini, Raffaele Giordani, Giuseppe Maletto, tenor; Walter Testolin, Salvo Vitale, bass; Gebhard David, Bork-Frithjof Smith, cornett; David Yacus, Ermes Giussani, Mauro Morini, sackbut; Nicholas Robinson, Carlo Lazzaroni, violin; Gianni de Rosa, viola; Caterina dell'Agnello, cello; Davide Nava, double bass; Gabriele Palomba, theorbo; Fabio Bonizzoni, Mariko Uchimura, organ

To say that there are as many different performances of the Vespro della Beata Vergine by Claudio Monteverdi as there are conductors may be a little exaggerated, but undoubtedly there is much room to take one's own decisions. This is due to the fact that the the collection of music which is nowadays mostly performed as Vespers is still surrounded by mysteries.
One of these is whether the various pieces in the collection are meant as a unity or have been put together to be used in liturgy at one's own discretion. It seems unlikely the Vespers as we know them have ever been performed in Monteverdi's time. But there is general agreement that the collection shows a strong inner coherence. From that perspective everything argues in favour of a complete performance.

That is how the Vespers were performed by the Italian keyboard player Fabio Bonizzoni with his ensemble La Risonanza on 18 February in the Jacobikerk in Utrecht. Considering his view on the character of the collection it was a matter of logic to perform only Monteverdi's own music, without any additional liturgical pieces, whether in plainchant or in settings by other composers of his time.

A matter of debate is also the number of singers to be used. Bonizzoni decided to perform the Vespers with solo voices, without a choir. He chose the high tuning which was common in Venice (a1=466 Hz); Lauda Jerusalem and the Magnificat were transposed. Bonizzoni limited the use of instruments; the advantage, in his view, is that the text is better understandable. In contrast to what is common today he also used a small number of instruments in the basso continuo group.
As Bonizzoni explained in his programme notes there are no 'right' and 'wrong' decisions in this regard. His own arguments are plausible enough. So how did his decisions work out?

Let me start by saying that with his ensemble he gave a very good performance. He had chosen an excellent team of singers and in several ways his interpretation had its own particular character. Of course, not every aspect was equally convincing.

There was no real weakness in the vocal ensemble, although one of the sopranos used a little too much vibrato. A bit problematic was the balance within the ensemble. Not all voices were equally strong, and in particular the tenors were a bit uneven in this respect. During the performances there were several moments when one or a couple of voices were a little too prominent.

Interesting was the way the Psalms were sung. The performance with one voice per part provided the singers with the opportunity to add ornaments and underline the way Monteverdi has translated the text into music. I assume it was also the text expression which was the reasoning behind the fluctuations in the tempi within the Psalms. But I think sometimes these fluctuations were a little overdone and too extreme. Although Bonizonni had reduced the role of the instruments in favour of the audibility of the text, in the fast passages this was partly damaged by the acoustics, in particular in fast passages. That was a general problem of this performance: even with the text in hand it was sometimes hard to hear exactly which words were sung.

The concerti were generally well sung. I had liked to tell who exactly were singing them, but they were not mentioned in the programme sheet. But whereas there was more ornamentation in the Psalms than usual, the soloists used it too sparingly in the concerti. There were several passages in Nigra sum, for instance, which really begged for ornaments, but were sung as written down. Moreover not all singers were able to perform the trilli in Duo seraphim to perfection.

The instrumentalists were of the same standard as the singers. They came to the fore in particular in the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria, but also in the hymn Ave maris stella, where they added some nice ornaments.

Although not always convincing, it was an engaging and captivating performance. I wouldn't mind hearing Bonizzoni's view of this masterpiece on disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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