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Monteverdi's Magnum Opus

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Monteverdi, 1610 Vespers, Gabrieli Consort and Players, Paul McCreesh (released on November 14, 2006)
As I have said before, Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) is one of the greatest composers in music history, who should be thought of as the Mozart or Beethoven of his age. Sadly, his music is far less known than it should be, although the early music movement has done much-appreciated work to end that ignorance. He had a long, superlative career and distinguished himself in all the musical genres of his time. This summer, I reviewed the latest releases of his madrigals (I will be reviewing the latest Concerto Italiano madrigal set this week), and he is really the father of opera. However, he is equally distinguished by his sacred compositions, and the recordings under review here offer different vantage points on his greatest religious work, the Vespro della Beate Vergine, known in English as the 1610 Vespers, after the date of publication of the main musical source. It is a work equal in majesty and scope to the B Minor Mass or the Missa Solemnis.

This month, the restless innovator Paul McCreesh (cited at Ionarts previously for his recovery of Gluck's Paride ed Elena and recordings of Saul and the St. Matthew Passion) released a recording of the 1610 Vespers with his Gabrieli Consort and Players. As Monteverdi probably intended choir directors who used his 1610 Vespers publication to do, McCreesh has selected from and reordered some of the pieces. McCreesh arrives at his solutions from extensive and intelligent analysis, partially explained in the interview with Prof. Tim Carter (author of Monteverdi's Musical Theater, recently reviewed by Barbara Russano Hanning in Journal for 17th-Century Music) in the liner notes. (However, the reference to an "introit" in a vespers service -- presumbably meaning the introductory versicle Deus in adiutorium -- is an error, albeit a minor one.) McCreesh admits that he does not make performance praxis decisions because he believes the result is "authentic," so the listener has only to be convinced by the sound or not.

Paul McCreesh, conductor
Paul McCreesh, conductor
This is an exciting performance, filled with visceral and descriptive sounds. For Monteverdi's incorporation of virtuosic madridgal-type singing, McCreesh has generally fine solo singers. The intonation of that opening versicle is disturbingly muscular, but the vocal adaptation of Monteverdi's own fanfare from Orfeo is thrilling. In some choral passages, the sections are uneven in their contributions, in terms of intonation and unity. McCreesh sometimes seems to push his singers one notch too far, either in tempo or volume, as in some of the less felicitous sections of Laetatus sum. He does a generally good job of bringing out the psalm tones incorporated into Monteverdi's complicated instrumental and choral textures, although some of them get lost. This is one of the most interesting accomplishments in the Vespers, akin to the lovely and complex things that J. S. Bach will do with chorale melodies in the following century.

McCreesh has inserted some pieces for organ, by other composers from the period, which adds some instrumental interest. The tuning of the organ will curl your hair until you get used to it. The musical complaints I have revolve especially around the performance of the Gregorian chants in this recording, which seem to have all vitality drained out of them, sung by a schola of little subtlety. In the same vein, I can see the intellectual points of McCreesh's preference for a different proportional relationship between the sections in duple and triple meter. However, the result, triple-meter sections at a much slower tempo, has the same effect of sucking the life out of the music.

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Monteverdi, 1610 Vespers (with both Magnificats and Missa In illo tempore), The King's Consort, Robert King (released on June 13, 2006)
In spite of losing a major lawsuit brought by Prof. Lionel Sawkins, Hyperion Records -- the Little Label That Could -- is, so far, still releasing interesting recordings (with the help of "the many hundreds of people who donated to Hyperion's Appeal for Recording Funds in 2005," acknowledged with thanks in the booklet). In Robert King's definitive recording of the Vespers, we have the entire 1610 publication, in its original order and with all the alternates (including the 6-part Magnificat setting) plus the Mass setting. (Hyperion has learned its lesson: I note that Robert King used his own performing edition for this recording.) Although it also fits onto two CDs, the King's Consort version clocks in at 137 minutes, almost 40 minutes longer than McCreesh. Missa In illo tempore, a major work of intense six-part polyphony building on themes borrowed from Nicolas Gombert's motet In illo tempore loquente Jesu, from the previous century, is 32 minutes by itself.

Essentially, the Mass provides the other panel of Monteverdi's compositional diptych, the mastery of the old polyphonic style to go with the more daring new techniques in the Vespers. So, it is nice to have them together in one recording. The singing here is also generally quite good, especially in the solo passages. In particular, the 6-part Magnificat, not as familiar as the preferred 7-part version, is a delight. Occasionally, the whole choir pleases less, especially the stridency of treble and alto lines, and there are some tuning problems. The instrumental playing is flexible and virtuosic, including remarkable performances from the cornetto players, praiseworthy because the instrument is so difficult and potentially so ugly.

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Monteverdi, 1610 Vespers, Kammerchor Stuttgart, Music Fiata, Choralschola Niederalteich, Frieder Bernius (released on September 14, 1989)
For years, I have been listening to a 1989 recording of the 1610 Vespers from Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, and it remains my favorite. It does not have the same soloist power as these new recordings, the sound and performance are far from perfect (but still very good), but it still strikes me as the most truly liturgical realization. That is, that everything about this recording strikes me as being appropriate to a Vespers service. By comparison, McCreesh's venue would be a flashy, modern concert hall, and King's perhaps an academic hall. These chanted sections, performed by the Choralschola Niederalteich, which specializes in chant, are fluid and lively, and the performance of the choral declamations (in some of the psalm pieces) is convincingly speech-like. Monteverdi switches from simple declamation into dance-like measured music so easily, and back again. Whereas McCreesh tends to emphasize the dramatic shift of such a gesture, Bernius leads his performers through the most natural transitions. The result is a text-centered and utterly sensitive, gentle performance. That is what the Divine Office is all about, the words, no matter the musical clothing.

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Monteverdi, 1610 Vespers, Apollo's Fire, Jeannette Sorrell (released on June 15, 1999)
You could not get a better reviewer of the 1610 Vespers than Prof. Jeffrey Kurtzman, at Washington University of St. Louis, who wrote The Monteverdi Vespers of 1610: Music, Context, Performance (Oxford University Press, 1999). Last year, Kurtzman reviewed the only recent American recording of the 1610 Vespers, by Cleveland-based Apollo's Fire, for the Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music. After dismantling the liner notes (written by the group's director, Jeannette Sorrell) for various errors, Kurtzman goes on to praise the recording ("If the program notes contain much nonsense, the performances rank with the very best available"). Although he is critical of some of Sorrell's performing decisions, Kurtzman describes this recordings as his favorite. Although I have never heard it, on the basis of this recommendation, I would like to check it out.

Archiv 00289 477 6147 / Hyperion CDA67531/2 / Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 7760-2-RC / Eclectra ECCD-2038


Garth Trinkl said...

Thank you very much for this expert review, Charles. It reminded me that excellent live performances of Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers -- once at your National Shrine here in Washington over twenty years ago, and once in Berkeley about 30 years ago -- have been highlights of my listening life.

Your review also reminded me that I haven't watched my old John Eliot Gardiner 1974 VHS Saint Marks Basilica recording of Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers in ages.

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks, Garth! By any chance, did you happen to attend the performance of the 1610 Vespers at the National Shrine (not our choir) that was three or four years ago? I'll have to look that up. It was the last time I heard the piece, complete, live.

Garth Trinkl said...

Charles, I missed the more recent Monteverdi Vespers at the Shrine, though I believe that I was somewhat aware of it. I can't recall if I was away, or chose to not go (if not busy) because I wanted to preserve my earlier, almost mystical memory of the Shrine performance of, I believe, 1982. (I can't recall the conductor, but recall that it may have been the scholar involved in the fine LP reconstruction version, which I played over 100 times. I recall the earlier Berkeley performance was led, I believe, by Alan Curtis -- though Laurence Moe's name also sticks in my mind for some reason.)

There was one Kennedy Center performance of these Vespers, I believe, in the late 1980s, which was less memorable to me.

Do you, or Jens, know the early Gardiner version (LP,CD,VHS) to which I referred? Wonderful filming, in my view.