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Briefly Noted: Pichon's 1610 Vespers (CD of the Month)

available at Amazon
Monteverdi, Vespro della beata vergine, Pygmalion, Raphaël Pichon

(released on September 1, 2023)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902710.11 | xx'xx
Claudio Monteverdi is a favorite composer, and there is no piece of his greater in my estimation than the Vespro della beata vergine. The Vespers of 1610, as the piece is sometimes known, has been reviewed in these pages many times, both in recordings and live. In other words, it would take a lot for me to be surprised by a new recording of this piece, but that is precisely what conductor Raphaël Pichon and his ensemble, Pygmalion, have done in their newly released recording. The opening movement, in which Monteverdi interweaves his brilliant brass fanfare from Orfeo with the opening versicle of the Vespers service, is adorned with added brass riffs. Then, just when I thought that Pichon was going to omit the final statement of "Alleluia" from this compact section, his forces delivered it, after a long pause, with expansive delicacy.

Pichon's St. Matthew Passion was a CD of the Month last year, and this release is no less fulfilling a listen. An older version of the Vespro, led by Frieder Bernius, remains my favorite because it is presented liturgically, rounded out with exquisitely performed chant. Pichon's approach could not be more different: where Bernius favors reserve and propriety, Pygmalion goes for spectacle, with a big chorus on many numbers, clarion brass, and splashy surprises of sound.

Not surprisingly, Pichon says in his booklet interview that he feels that "the Vespro is the first cinematic work in the history of music. Monteverdi’s dramatic genius means that each psalm (and especially the first three) is presented as a genuine scene of dramatic action. He sets the scene, and makes us feel, visualise, even touch it!" This situates the work in that most dramatic of stylistic periods, the Baroque, the same era that created the genre of opera. The experience Pichon wants is "immersive," and it is: as he puts it, "to attend a performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers is to experience ecstasy," in a way similar to a viewing of a room-filling work by Bernini.

Many elements will strike a listener familiar with the work as quite different. Pichon opts to eschew the "chiavette" system, by which the often high tessitura of some music of this period was transposed down by a fourth, as heard on many recordings. By not only adhering to the original keys, but also resorting to the high pitch standard of Italian tunings of the time (A set somewhere between 440 and 465 Hz), the singers add further virtuosic, one might say "operatic," intensity to many key climaxes.

Like most conductors, Pichon shuffles the order of numbers slightly in the work's final section. The most significant change is the interpolation of another piece by Monteverdi, Sancta Maria, succurre miseris (SV 328) from Promptuarium musicum, published in 1627, to serve as the "antiphon" to the Magnificat. (In his "liturgical" recording, Bernius added a chant antiphon with an almost identical text in this position.) The motet is followed by the litany-like Sonata sopra Sancta Maria, with which it shares intriguing melodic elements, as if the composer were alluding to one in the other. The concluding number is also a nod to cinematic style, as the Orfeo fanfare that opened the work returns, retrofitted to the closing formulas of Vespers.

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1 comment:

pete said...

I was surprised too - but not in a good way: P & P's presentation waaaay too affected and idiosyncratic.