Paul McCreesh is
well known for successfully presenting early music within a
wider liturgical context. Until now, my personal favourite
example of this approach was his construction of a service
based around Cristóbal de Morales’ Missa Mille regretz -
now available on Archiv Blue 474228-2. On the present recording,
McCreesh tackles Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, music he has
been performing for at least twenty-five years.
This is a relatively ‘small
scale’ approach, consistent with the current consensus that
the works were composed for the Gonzaga Court in Mantua rather
than the grand spaces of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice - where
he was promoted to maestro di cappella in 1613. The
choir comprised twelve voices, with four additional chant singers,
and there are twenty instrumentalists listed. These forces
provide an intimate, warm and atmospheric texture but they
are also quite capable of passion and excitement whenever the
score demands it.
Overall, the performance
is a triumph. While we are unlikely ever to know the circumstances
underpinning the composition or the exact ordering of the pieces
for intended performance, McCreesh presents a very convincing
account. By excluding the smaller of Monteverdi’s two Magnificat settings,
and adjusting the order of the music as published, the work
takes on a sense of coherence lacking in other interpretations.
The choir is superb
throughout. Take, for example, the Dixit Dominus (CD1
mv 3): the interplay of the six voices and instrumentation
is nothing short of amazing. In fact I was unable to identify
a single weak link among the forces throughout the entire work,
despite crystal clear recording quality by Deutsche Grammophon.
If there is one criticism however, it is that the recording
is biased towards the voices. I would have appreciated the
instrumental parts being brought forward somewhat - especially
the superb violin work of Catherine Martin and Oliver Webber.
The Sonata sopra Sancta Maria (CD2 mv 17) has some of
the very finest period instrument playing I have ever heard,
the brass and strings interwoven to exceptionally compelling
The Vespers are,
of course, full of jaw-droppingly beautiful moments. Here,
I am drawn time and time again to the inventiveness and complexity
of the vocal interchanges of the longer pieces, such as the Laudate
pueri Dominum (CD1 mv 6), and the Ave maris stella (CD2
mv 2). The famous setting of the Duo Seraphim (CD2 mv
20) for three tenors - related to his Possente Spirito from L’Orfeo,
composed around the same time - is also very fine indeed.
to shift Duo Seraphim and Audi coelum (CD2 mv
23) to the end of the work - after the Magnificat, which
rounds off Monterverdi’s print - and while this may present
a somewhat anti-climactic end, it sounds convincing to my ears.
Indeed, the Audi coelum, sung by Charles Daniels, is
one of the highlights of the set.
need not hesitate in picking up this recording, and it would
be a great first purchase for those who are not familiar with
his works. Although there is some question of the recording
balance of instrumental vs vocal parts, and some may
question the lack of Italianate phrasing throughout, this is
undoubtedly an important and satisfying release. However, I
would have liked to have seen more thought go into the booklet
notes. The transcript of a short conversation with McCreesh – available
via the Deutsche
Grammophon web site - plus vocal texts seem
insufficient for such a project.