MONTEVERDI: Vespro della Beata Vergina (1610) – Soloists/ La Petite Bande/ Sigiswald Kuijken – Challenge multichannel SACD CC72311, 86:05 (2 discs) **** [Distr. by Allegro]:
Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) is one of music history’s true universal geniuses. Like Mozart, to whom he can be compared, he had an equal facility with small scale chamber music sized pieces and large scale operas and other vocal works. Although Monteverdi was rarely a composer of music we would consider strictly instrumental, his skillful use of instrumentation when orchestrating his vocal works always reveals consummate skill. He often exhibited such profound musical insight that it resulted in revolutionary advances in their combination.
Each of Monteverdi’s works is completely developed in both a musical and a dramatic sense. His use of instrumental texture is utterly new and without precedent in its ability to convey the essence of the dramatic text and the emotions of the drama’s protagonists. In fact, Monteverdi is credited with being the first composer to utilize both tremolo (rapidly repeating the same musical tone) and pizzicato (plucking a string with one’s fingers) in a musical work. All of these advanced musical traits are why he is considered the great transitional figure bridging the Renaissance and the Baroque eras.
The spectacular achievement that was Renaissance polyphony and the brand new Baroque innovation that was the technique known as Basso Continuo both flow through Monteverdi. Also known as figured bass or thoroughbass, Basso Continuo was musical shorthand that provided the musician with the harmonic structure of the music upon which he could improvise. Monteverdi is the embodiment of a profound musical synthesis between different eras. Such an event is rarely found in history: only Bach and Beethoven were comparable amalgamative agents.
The Vespro della Beata Vergina was first published in Venice in July 1610, although the precise intentions of the work are still unknown. The 1610 Vespers is the epitome of Monteverdi’s musical synthesis. It contains examples of traditional Gregorian plainchant upon which each movement of the work is built. This provides a formal unity to the piece. It also contains a number of larger scale psalms and smaller scale motets, as well as a sonata and a concluding Magnificat.
The 10 vocalists specified by the composer can indeed constitute a choir but Sigiswald Kuijken, the conductor of this recording, adopts Joshua Rifkin’s famous thesis of one voice per part. Andrew Parrott in his recording of the Vespers (which this recording resembles) utilized the same scheme. It certainly provides a lithe motility to the performance but it also removes those contrasting dynamic elements that serve to increase the drama of the work. Also lost is a sense of forward motion as we inhabit an antique musical sound world that often embraces stasis. The singers on this recording are all fine in their solo performances, providing a restrained emotional fervor that resonates with the listener who allows this music to slowly reveal itself.
The instrumental accompaniment is deftly played by the superb authentic instruments orchestra La Petite Bande. But here too Kuijken interprets Monteverdi’s instructions as limiting the choices available in the instrumentation of the Vespers. Some of the wonderful reconstructions of 17th Century instruments that were made for the orchestra are therefore seldom used. Kuijkin also refrains from conducting the piece in the usual sense, confining his activities to preparation and stimulation as a first amongst equals in a musical collective. The orchestra is fine enough to play without a leader, of course, but the intensity of a tightly controlled performance is slightly diluted. Nevertheless, the excellence of the musicians overcomes any difficulties in conception, producing a fine performance.
This recording features excellent SACD multichannel sound that helps to create the illusion of an ancient church setting. Necessarily reverberant, there is a slight loss of spatial localization. This is mitigated by the music’s relatively light texture so the proceedings never become muddy. In a relatively crowded field this is a fine recording that holds up well against the other multichannel versions of the Vespers.
— Mike Birman