MONTEVERDI: Vespro della beata Vergine (1610) – Monteverdi Choir & the English Baroque Soloists / John Eliot Gardiner, conductor – Deutsche Grammophon Archiv CD 429-565-2/4, 1:45:42***(*)
MONTEVERDI: Vespers of 1610 – Chandler, Clift, Croft, Atkinson, Diamond, Nomura, Mattsey, soloists & the Boston Baroque / Martin Pearlman, conductor – Telarc CD 80453, 1:33:29 **
MONTEVERDI: Vespro della beata Vergine 1610 – Taverner Consort, Choir & Players / Andrew Parrott, conductor – EMI/Virgin CD 7243 5 61662 2 6, 2:27: 50 ***
MONTEVERDI: Vespro della Beata Vergine – Gabrieli Consort & Players, Paul McCreesh, conductor – Archiv 000747302, 97:54 ***
Quick: What do Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti, Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto (No.5 in Eb), Mozart’s “Linz” Symphony (K. 425), and the Monteverdi Vespers (1610) all have in common?
They were all sent as musical calling cards in the hopes of securing employment.
In the case of Monteverdi’s Vespers, the component pieces were composed, adapted, or assembled in the hope of securing employment as the “Maestro di Cappella” of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. This they did, but they also irrevocably established Monteverdi as one of the most brilliant composers in history – thus another link is realized amongst the composers in the first paragraph.
The “Vespers” is actually a bit of a misnomer, as the collection has simultaneously too much music for a true Vespers service and yet not enough. Missing from the collection are some customary antiphons proper for the feast days of Mary, and yet other pieces are included (or substituted) that have little liturgical relevance. Additionally, the collection of music contains a spare “Magnificat”, and also the brilliant “Missa In illo tempore” (which doesn’t belong in a Vespers service at all). Monteverdi’s expectations for the performance of this collection remain unclear.
The result of this ambiguity is that performers have some license to interpret whether this collection was designed as a unified work or intended rather as a loose collection of pieces to be reassembled as needed for liturgical use. The performances under review tend to fall into those broad camps, with some muddying caveats (pertaining to differences in perceived performance authenticity) thrown in. At the end of the review I have included some of my more useful scholarly sources, for if you are (still) reading a review of this piece, you may be just as inclined to read more on the scholarly debate surrounding it.
Parrott’s performance on EMI/Virgin benefits from his undeniably prodigious musicological understanding of the performance practices of the era. As a result, Parrott has added curious “interpolations” of unrelated musical material (Gregorian chants and music by other composers) to the Vespers. While he makes a sound case for the practice, I found the juxtaposition of disparate compositional voices jarring and distracting. Parrott also has long advocated transposing downward by a fourth certain movements of the Vespers collection (i.e. the “Lauda Jerusalem” and “Magnificat” movements plus the entire Mass). I am mostly convinced of the scholarship supporting this choice, and am increasingly convinced of its musicality (pax Maestro Gardiner, see below). I like the darker, almost burnished quality this transposition imparts to the tone, and relish the sound of the basses growling along on the low contra Cs. Parrott reserves the use of the full chorus for the opening Dixit Dominus and a very limited few others (e.g. Laudate Jerusalem), giving the great bulk of the vocal work to his peerless soloists – including the incomparable Emma Kirkby. The ornamentation is varied, with the male soloists employing the most aggressive exhibitions, but all is well within the limits of my musical taste for sparser displays. On the disappointing side, Mr. Parrott has chosen very relaxed tempos; not a sin in itself, but these tempi tend to be moribund.
Recorded in the warm acoustic of All Saint’s Church in Tooting, England (an oft-recorded venue), Parrott’s solo singers are perfectly placed in the ambient environment. The organ and lute continuo supports them sweetly, the cornetti and brass are nicely rounded and somewhat recessed, and the strings are warm and completely without the harshness sometimes associated with period instruments. Well done, those. The very limited choir is set further back in the acoustic (behind the soloists) and occasionally is dominated by the other forces. In all, Parrott presents a very intimate presentation, closely in keeping with his published written opinions on this subject. My two – very minor – carps concern the tendency of the choir to adopt the overly bright phonation to which I refer as the “early music sound” (really wide vowels and slightly strained), and that the choir and soloists seem to travel to and fro from track to track, as if I had switched seats in the church between tracks. Finally, there are some very sloppy edits: for instance hear Disk II: Track 9 (4’31”), and another gaffe at II:1 (14’32”). I always enjoy the “humanizing elements” of a recording, such as the squeak of the podium, the quiet intake of breath before the downbeat, or – as in this case – the gentle flutter of the musicians flipping their pages together. Recommended with a caveat concerning the “interpolations”.
Right off the bat I was concerned with Martin Perlman and the Boston Baroque’s offering on Telarc when the tenor scooped his very first entrance on the beginning intonation. The tenor’s initial swagger was somewhat explained by the jauntiness of the following choral movements; clearly this aggressiveness is a musical choice and not a soloistic excess. In all, this aggressive, theatrical nature permeates the performance: soloists sing with full-throated vigor (no white-toned soprano soloists here), the chorus is liberally employed, brash brass and strings, and an omni-present organ and harpsichord continuo. Perlman’s tempi are driven, with very little internal dynamic give and take. Perlman has grabbed hold of Monteverdi’s operatic style and pasted it liberally across the entire collection. Singers employ liberal ornamentation, including “mesa di voce” and 19th century vibrato and portamento. Perlman does not transpose any of the movements, choosing instead to keep them up at their virtuosic heights. In all, I have no issue with interpreting the Vespers as an operatic concert piece – Monteverdi did create the first “modern” opera, and much of that musical style can be found in the Vespers.
All of this does go to make the inclusion of some Gregorian chant interpolations curious (given the Doctrine of the Affections), either it is for church or it isn’t. Ah, well – the chants are well sung and can be programmed out with your remote. The recording is well placed within the Holy Spirit Chapel (Weston, MA) [mis-identified in CD booklet], with some of the solo echo moments placed truly distantly in the mix. The recording is up to Telarc’s customary exacting standards, with special praise deserved for the recording of the choir and the strings.
I do have some basic concerns about some other aspects of the Boston Baroque performance, however. There are several instances where the solo singers are decidedly flat (c.f. the first soprano soloist on CD I: Track 7 (0’11”) [and following], the sustained [a] vowel of ‘mea’ is at least 30 cents beneath the pitch, and elsewhere the tenor soloists are literally all over the place). Please don’t offer that they are intentionally singing in an alternate tuning system, they simply don’t match the intonation of the accompaniment or the other singers. Instead, I submit that the big, beautiful voices Perlman used to compliment his operatic vision had to come way off the voice (and the corresponding breath support) to navigate the tricky and exposed passages.
PLEASE NOTE: The cover of my CD boasts “20-bit Digital Surround Sound” when in fact it is neither. Yes, Telarc records and masters in 20-bit digital, but then downsamples it to standard 16-bit CDs. Deep in the booklet you can find the statement, “This recording is COMPATIBLE with all surround sound systems” [emphasis mine] – the recording itself is neither multichannel nor high-definition. [Yes, many labels list the sampling rate and word length of their masters on their CDs as though the CDs were hi-res. However, this Telarc never states it is multichannel – only encoded for matrix surround if you have a decoder such as ProLogic II, Circle Surround and so on to extract the analog ambient information. This process is compatible…Ed.]
Ah, the Gardiner. For years, Gardiner’s interpretation on Deutsche Grammophon/Archiv has been the gold standard to which all others were weighed. Recorded in 1984 at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice with period-ish instruments and a cast of thousands, it has become the crotchety grandfather we all love. The location of the recording is interesting as Monteverdi’s workplace, but we have no evidence to support that the Vespers collection was ever performed there (and then certainly not in it’s entirety). We’re pretty sure Monteverdi didn’t even write the pieces to be performed there. In addition to this, St. Mark’s is a nightmare to perform (or record) in; it’s damp and cavernous with poor lighting, it has a multi-second reverberant delay with a bright audio character owing to the multitude of gold mosaics that completely cover every surface. It is like trying to sing in your Grandmother’s 1950’s-era bathroom – assuming her bathroom had been as large as the Metrodome. What could they possibly have been thinking? Marketing. It made a really nice video for DGG. Perhaps that’s why they didn’t go back there to re-record the ‘Magnificat a 6’, but rather opted for the church down the street (All Saints Church, Tooting).
As for adding interpolations or transposing movements, Gardiner has dismissed it all, harrumphing that all such is “an aberration”. Therefore, young soprani screech away up in the stratosphere accompanied by whinnying cornetti and strings.
But oh, what glorious screeching. Vocal soloists employ light, warm vibrato and sensible ornamentations (the organist is a little excitable, however). Solos given to adult sopranos in other recordings are entrusted here to the sweet sounding choirboys. The choir employs the “early music sound” unapologetically. The cornetti and brass occasionally rise above their station and put their paws up on the listener, but Gardiner manages to smack them back down into the mix to no lasting ill effect. The organist remains impenitent until the end. The performance is brisk and utterly convicted. “Committed” may indeed be a better word, as it accurately calls forth the wild-eyed, spittle-bedecked performance Gardiner elicits from his transplanted Brits in the glorious fanfare movements. Yet…he remains supremely capable of taming the slower, introspective moments with tender, nuanced affection. In the end, it is this obvious affection for the music that exudes from each quaver, and still utterly overwhelms the listener. Still warmly recommended, despite that this release easily wins the “ugliest album cover” award.
Robert King’s latest Monteverdi release is certainly the most complete representation of the Vespers offered here, as it also includes all the alternate versions of several movements plus a special bonus feature, the heart-achingly beautiful “Missa In illo tempore”; this CD represents a type of Monteverdi “Director’s Cut”. I have listened to this recording attentively for almost a year now, hearing the SACD multichannel on three different systems, the hi-definition track both on a dedicated stereo and through a headphone system, and the CD layer on everything from my laptop, car stereo, to iPod. It is that great of a recording!
King cherry picks approaches from each of the previous offerings. He includes the downward transpositions from Parrott, but eschews any “interpolations”. He uses adult soprano soloists (but with a light, gentle vibrato), and employs liberal use of full choral forces – this is definitely a ‘choral’ work in King’s interpretation, not a concert opera. The fast tempi are really brisk, but the slower movements are truly slow – although they never seem to lag owing to their loving attention to detail. The casually aggressive ornamentation only seems forced in a couple of moments; it is ever intelligent and well mannered. The soloists are more forward in the acoustic space than Gardiner, and the continuo instruments remain present while never rising above their proper place. The brass only occasionally rears its raucous head, apparently King momentarily forgot Strauss’ dictum for conductors to “never look at the brass, it only encourages them.” King even has the temerity to employ rubato [gasp] in several spaces, mostly in those places that display Monteverdi’s “Seconda Pratica”.
Some of King’s other choices make less sense to me. In “Dixit Dominus”, only for example, some of his choral/soloist assignations seem arbitrary, as do a few of his tempo changes. Additionally, in the famous fauxbourdon moments he will occasionally have the organ intone the chord prior to the choral entrance and then bring in the choir a beat later, other times not. Finally, he decides to have the bass/baritone soloist intone the “Gloria Patri” from the wings at I:2 (5’54”), again for no apparent reason (it is not an antiphonal moment, although it could have been used successfully for a cheesy surround sound effect). Finally, his somewhat fickle approach to transitions between duple and triple meters will not endear him to purists and dusty scholars. But if we leave those dead to bury themselves, this is a living, vigorous performance. Even the seemingly capricious choices are redeemed ultimately through a musical consequentialist prism: his choices simply exude beauty and musicality. Very Highly Recommended.
So, which one should you buy? That depends (sorry): If you are buying your first copy, or you want the SACD – the King is an easy and ever-rewarding choice. If you need a budget alternative, have absolutely no qualms about snatching up the Gardiner. If you are looking for a second recording, things may get dicey: If you already have Gardiner, I would first recommend that you get one of the intimate versions such as Parrott or the very similar offering from Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort & Players (Archiv 000747302 ***), also an honorable mention in the “ugliest album cover” category), or, if you already have an intimate version, definitely splurge and get the new King.
Some selected reading for further information:
Kurtzman, Jeffrey. “Critical/performing edition of Claudio Monteverdi: Vespers of 1610”. Oxford: Oxford University press, 1999.
Kurtzman, Jeffrey. “The Monteverdi Vespers of 1610: Music, Context, and Performance”. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Kurtzman, Jeffrey. “Kurtzman on Holman: Write to Reply”. The Musical Times, Vol. 142, No. 1877. (Winter, 2001), pp. 52-60.
Parrott, Andrew. “Getting it Right”. The Musical Times, Vol. 136, No. 1832. (Oct., 1995), pp. 531-535.
Parrott, Andrew. “Monteverdi: onwards and downwards”. Early Music 32: 303-318, 2004.
Parrott, Andrew. “Transposition in Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610: An ‘Aberration’ Defended”. Early Music, Vol. 12, No. 4, 1984.
Roche, Jerome. “Critical/performing edition of Claudio Monteverdi: Vespers of 1610”. London: Eulenberg, 1994.
– Randy Haldeman