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Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
Vespro della Beata Vergine (Vespers) (1610)
Psalms 109, 110, 111, 112 and 116 and Salve Regina from Selva morale e spirituale (1641)
Taverner Consort (Tessa Bonner; Emma Kirkby; Evelyn Tubb; Emily van Evera (sopranos); Margaret Philpot (mezzo); Rogers Covey-Crump; Joseph Cornwell; Charles Daniels; Andrew King; Nigel Rogers; John Dudley; Peter Long (tenors); Stephen Charlesworth (baritone); Richard Savage; David Thomas; Richard Wistreich; Simon Grant (basses))/Canto Gregoriano/Taverner Choir and Players/Andrew Parrott
rec. All Saints, Tooting, London, August 1983 and March 1984 (Vespers); Temple Church, London, December 1982 (Psalms). DDD.
Booklet with brief notes in English, French and German but no texts.
VIRGIN VERITAS 5 61662 2 [2 CDs 74:53+72:57]



Just over a year ago Dominy Clements concluded his Musicweb review of Robert King’s version of the complete 1610 collection (Hyperion CDA67531/2, also available on SACD, SACDA67531/2) by saying that all his other versions of these works had sadly been relegated to an ‘inaccessible cupboard behind the sofa’ and the new version now stood alone among the select ‘immediately to hand’ collection. Having heard excerpts when these CDs were published, and having now listened to the Lætatus sum and the Sanctus and Benedictus of the mass In illo tempore from this set on the Hyperion website, I can fully understand this reaction; even at a low bit-rate, its quality is apparent. There is much to be said for such a performance in an ‘operatic’ style: after all, Monteverdi, by re-using the instrumental opening of his opera L’Orfeo in the Vespers, effectively sanctioned such an approach. Paradoxically, I understand that King omits this dramatic opening. 

This work, however, offers so many areas for debate and dissension that it is unlikely that one version will ever reign supreme. One distinguished scholar, the late Denis Stevens, described the situation as the blind leading the blind and the deaf leading the deaf. As in the case of Bach’s B-minor Mass, we do not even know the circumstances of the original performance(s) though, since it is described as Vespro della Beata Vergine, it is reasonable to suppose that it was intended for a festal celebration of Vespers on one of the feasts of the Virgin Mary – but would that have been with a small choir (one voice to a part) or with a larger ensemble in which at least some of the items would have been sung with larger forces? At what pitch should music of this period be performed? As usual with Veritas twofers, the notes in the booklet are extremely sketchy and contain no hint of the many controversies surrounding how the music should be performed, not even a mention of the fact that the chosen pitch is a’=440. If you can, beg, borrow or steal the much fuller booklet of notes which accompanied the original full-price issue and which, fortunately, I kept when I replaced it, or look at one of the links which I have suggested at the end of this review. 

Recently Paul McCreesh (on Archiv 477 614-7, 2 CDs) has re-opened the debate concerning how many voices should be employed per part; McCreesh employs one voice per part, King adopts the multiple-voice approach. Without disparaging either of these newer versions, I wanted to investigate how well Parrott, now the oldest of the main current contenders, stood. Parrott pursues a midway course, employing single voices for some items and a larger, though never overwhelmingly large, ensemble for others. 

The Virgin set, of course, has a considerable price advantage over the other two sets, at about one third the price of the McCreesh and a quarter that of the King. King includes all the music from the 1610 collection, including the alternative Magnificat and the old-style Missa in illo tempore; the Veritas reissue of Parrott adds a further 22-minute selection of Monteverdi’s Vesper psalm settings from a later collection – though well worth having, especially as the Marian motet Salve Regina aptly rounds off a set of Marian Vespers, they sound more like a ‘bolt-on’ than King’s offering of the complete 1610 set – McCreesh offers only the Vespers in a liturgical reconstruction, but owners of this or the Parrott can easily add In illo tempore to their collection in a performance by The Sixteen on a recommendable bargain-price Hyperion Helios disc (CDH55145) and thereby also obtain another, four-part, Mass and other Monteverdi works. 

King fits all the Vespers music on one disc; his 70:25 against Parrott’s 105:37 may seem like a fast sprint, but he does not attempt Parrott’s liturgical reconstruction. The comparison between Parrott and McCreesh at 97:54 is more to the point, though even here the comparison is odious, since McCreesh and Parrott employ different plainsong antiphons. In Lætatus sum, Parrott is actually slightly faster than King; indeed, nowhere does his version ever sound drawn-out. Nor does he indulge in the recklessly fast tempi that sometimes typify overdone ‘authenticity’. 

Parrott’s singers are all excellent, though I must admit to a personal aversion to the timbre of Nigel Rogers’ voice, especially when Parrott ignores Denis Stevens’ advice to avoid having a tenor sing Nigra sum. Those who have read my recent review of the Eloquence reissue of Handel Italian Cantatas will not be surprised if I single out the contribution of Emma Kirkby amongst the other fine soloists. 

Parrott also ignores Stevens’ advice to eschew the use of instruments such as the chittarone and harpsichord, which would have sounded “like a mouse breaking wind” in St Mark’s, though perfectly appropriate in the more domestic surroundings of listening to a CD. This instrumental accompaniment is never obtrusive, never sounds strange in a misguided effort to achieve a ‘baroque’ sound – the typical sound of the baroque violin dates, in any case, from a period later than 1610 – indeed, I could have wished the organs at times to have made a greater ‘noyse’, more commensurate with the sound that might have been heard in St Mark’s: though Monteverdi was not appointed to his post there until 1613, he probably had the sound of such a large church in mind. 

Stevens also advises would-be performers to avoid editions which include plainsong, which he admits to having included for practical reasons in his 1960s edition. It is difficult to see how Parrott could have followed this advice literally: if this is a setting of Vespers, it must at least include the opening Deus in adiutorium / Domine ad adiuvandum and the closing blessing. In fact, however, Parrott goes further than this, employing a separate group of six singers, named separately as the Canto Gregoriano in the original booklet but omitted from the reissue booklet, to sing a number of antiphons. In the Roman Breviary special antiphons, short settings of words from the Bible or elsewhere, appropriate to the occasion, precede each of the Vespers psalms and the Magnificat. Parrott not unreasonably includes the plainsong antiphons appropriate to the feast of the Assumption, together with the plainsong Capitulum or short reading for that feast. 

Though well aware of the argument that the various items in the 1610 collection were probably written piecemeal during the preceding years, and may never have received a complete outing – may never have been intended for performance in their entirety – I must admit to a preference for a performance such as Parrott’s or that of McCreesh which attempts a liturgical reconstruction over the plainer approach recommended by Stevens and adopted by King. For this reason, too, I recommend McCreesh’s other reconstructions of Venetian music, such as his more radical attempt to reconstruct First Vespers of the Annunciation “as it might have been celebrated in St Mark’s, Venice in 1643”, a 2-CD set of music by Monteverdi, Rigati, et al, most recently reissued at mid-price on 476 1868. 

To sum up: if you would prefer a performance of the Vespers with slightly larger forces and avoiding any attempt at liturgical reconstruction, excellently sung and recorded (especially if you have SACD-capability), go for the King. You will not regret the fact that Hyperion have made this a 2-CD set when the actual Vespers are complete on one disc, since the music on the second CD is well worth hearing. If you would like the liturgical approach, insist on a modern recording, and subscribe to the one-to-a-part philosophy, McCreesh is probably right for you. If you want the liturgical approach but in a context where larger forces are sometimes employed, Parrott is still very competitive. The (originally EMI) recording still sounds well, though inevitably sounding more small-scale than the Hyperion; the extra psalms are well worth hearing, and you will have to lay out far less of your hard-earned money than for either of the alternatives. Even if you also add the Helios CD containing In illo tempore you will still have change from the normal cost of one full-price CD. I hate to sound mercenary where great music is concerned, but for those of us born North of Watford, cost is an inevitable factor!

I have tried to avoid becoming bogged down in technicalities – I could, for example, have written about whether the Concerti such as Nigra sum are properly part of a celebration of Vespers. Much more important to share my enjoyment of the work – and for those as yet unacquainted with Monteverdi, the Vespers or L’Orfeo is the place to begin. Any one of the recordings I have named is likely to prove an enjoyable experience, as is the older version by Gardiner (Archiv 429 565-2, a live recording made in St Mark’s, also on DVD). Tony Haywood on this site also recommended Alessandrini’s account (Naïve OP30403) but thought it best not to make this one’s only version. For L’Orfeo I also recommend another older EMI recording directed by Charles Medlam, now available as a bargain Virgin Veritas twofer on 4 82070 2. Yes, it’s Nigel Rogers again as Orfeo, but I find his voice here much more acceptable.

While on the subject of recommending recordings of Monteverdi, I should belatedly mention a Consort of Musicke/Anthony Rooley CD entitled Lamento d’Arianna and containing settings by Monteverdi and contemporaries of this excerpt from his lost opera. When I recently reviewed the Naxos set of the Sixth Book of Madrigals, where the Lamento first appeared, I was under the impression that this disc was deleted but it is, in fact, available at bargain price in the Deutsche Harmonia Mundi Baroque Esprit series (05472 77430 2). I recommend it – of course: Emma Kirkby is a contributor. 

Those in search of more information about the Vespers will find all they need and more on a scholarly website (click on the portrait of Monteverdi to enter the site). The text, with translation, is available as an appendix to this site. A basic introduction to Monteverdi by Denis Arnold is available in the Master Musicians series (first published by Dent, 1963, revised 1990, reissued Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). Denis Stevens’ no-nonsense approach in Monteverdi in Venice (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 2001) is well worth seeking out. A 7-part vocal score of part of the Vespers, the psalm Lauda Jerusalem Dominum is available.

Brian Wilson




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