MONTEVERDI: Vespers of 1610 – Grace Davidson, Charlotte Mobbs, sopranos/ Simon Berridge, Jeremy Budd, Mark Dobell, tenors/ Ben Davies, Eamonn Dougan, bass/ The Sixteen/ Harry Christophers – Coro COR16126 (2 CDs), 66:15, 39:51 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:

When we listen to the grandeur and glories of Monteverdi’s overwhelming and exquisite Vespers of the Blessed Virgin, it’s really hard to believe that the piece was never heard by the composer in his lifetime, nor was the probable intention of the thing being performed in toto. In fact, the composer, despite the obvious care and skill that went into the orchestration of this seminal work, made an arrangement for organ accompaniment alone when other instruments were not available. The completeness of the piece was to offer choirmasters alternatives in instrumentation, and also to serve as a compendium from which to draw on feasts of the Virgin Mary according to what was needed in each individual circumstance.

Nevertheless, it’s also hard to imagine that the composer did not think of this work as a “whole” when composing it, so unified is the structure and idiom according to the philosophy behind it—a singular stream of plainsong which supported the Psalms, while the composer spun an ever-intricate and magnificently varied and creative web of polyphony. One staggers at the sheer uniqueness and variety of this effort.

The piece has been well-served on record, especially since the advent of the period performers, who have taken to it—and its many revisions and theories—like a bee to pollen. My favorites are hardly unknown; perhaps the clearest presentation, and best sung (with the wonderful Emma Kirkby) remains the 1984 Virgin Classics issue with Andrew Parrot and his Taverner Consort, though the one-singer-per-part is a little perverse. The sound, amazingly enough, still competes with anything that has been done recently, and Parrott has a real way with the score. The biggest splash, on record and video, was probably made in 1990 by John Eliot Gardiner and his English Baroque Soloists on Archiv, surely the most purely joyous reading of the music ever made, with the advantage of actually having been recorded in the basilica of San Marco in Venice. Sound is still stunning.

The sonic splendor of Robert King’s SACD incarnation on Hyperion cannot be too highly recommended—it is without question the most majestic and thoroughly sound-immersing experience out there. King takes advantage of many discoveries and practices that went before him, and in a very convincing manner. The downside is that the sound is not quite as clear as in someone like Parrott—and even Gardiner for that matter, despite the cavernous St. Mark’s—but the spread is glorious, and for pure spine-tingling ecstasy, this is the one you want.

I was hoping for more from Christophers, as he is so reliable, but the end result neither adds to the current understanding of the work, nor detracts from it in its value as a recording. It is clearly more pietistic than the others, less bombastic, and ravishingly shaped. This will appeal to those who want to pray but discourage those who want to be blown out! The truth is that Christophers, despite not advancing the ball much, offers a reading of balance, proportion, and devotional import. You have to have more than one copy of this work if you want to get the whole picture. This is a nice place to start.

—Steven Ritter