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Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
Cantate Domino (1620) [2:11]
Mass for four voices (published 1650) [21:44] (Kyrie [3:59]; Gloria [4:34]; Credo [6:05]; Sanctus [2:32]; Benedictus [1:34]; Agnus Dei [3:00])
Domine, ne in furore (1620) [4:00]
Missa In illa tempore for six voices (1610) [28:24] (Kyrie [3:39]; Gloria [5:47]; Credo [10:06]; Sanctus [2:24]; Benedictus [1:33]; Agnus Dei I [2:32]; Agnus Dei II [2:23])
The Sixteen/Harry Christophers
Margaret Phillips (organ)
rec. All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, 9-10 May 1986. DDD.
Booklet with notes in English, French and German and texts in Latin with English translation.

When, recently, I reviewed the Virgin Veritas super-budget reissue of Monteverdi’s Vespers (5 61662 2) and found that it stood up well to later competition, I mentioned that those who purchased it might also wish to buy this Hyperion Helios reissue as containing the other major work from the 1610 collection, the Mass In illo tempore. 

Please note that in that earlier review I gave the wrong number for the Virgin set of the Vespers, accidentally replacing the final 2 with the 6 from the end of the full international number: the correct number is as given here – profuse apologies to all who tried to order it by the wrong number. Just for the record, the full number is 7243 5 61662 2 6 – and that is one of the shorter numbers current nowadays – I wish the record companies would go back to the old letters + numbers system: it’s much easier to make mistakes with long numbers.

Since the original issue of this CD, Hyperion have gone on to record four CDs of Monteverdi’s sacred works in a highly successful series of recordings with the King’s Consort: of the works on this Helios CD, the 1650 4-part Mass is on CDA67438 (SACD version SACDA67438), Cantate Domino on (SA)CDA67487, Domine, ne in furore on (SA)CDA67519 and In illo tempore with the Vespers on (SA)CDA67531/2. The excellence of that enterprise – and of a further first-class single CD entitled Monteverdi Sacred Choral Music on CDA66021, a ‘rosette’ disc with Emma Kirkby et al – may seem to have diminished the value of these versions by the Sixteen but nothing could actually be further from the truth.

The music, the performances and the recording still come up as fresh as paint. The presentation, too, is up to Hyperion’s usual, high, scholarly standards – no sense of cheeseparing for a bargain reissue (Two typos apart: the opening work is consistently misprinted as Cantate Domine, which makes no sense, and the opening words, “Cantate Domine novum canticum, a benedicite nomen eius”, should read “Cantate Domino canticum novum, et benedicite nomen eius” – how wrong can you get it? The correct words and score are available online. The Hyperion catalogue and web-page, seeking to correct the error, get it even more wrong with Cantate Dominum, which makes even less sense. Alas, the decline in the classics has afflicted even Hyperion now! Eheu mihi! Even my spell-checker is in on the act – it corrects Cantate to Cantata when I’m not looking. But whoever typed the text display on the recording itself got it right!). 

Monteverdi seems to have compiled the 1610 collection as part of his CV (US readers: resumé) for Venice and his duties as maestro di capella at St Mark’s, Venice, would presumably have included the composition of masses, but only three mass settings by him survive, of which two are included here, plus a setting of the Gloria alone. It may be, as the notes suggest, that the stricter rules laid down by the Council of Trent for settings of the mass – one note per syllable, for example – restricted the scope of polyphonic composition to such an extent that composers began to look elsewhere, to the motet, antiphon and vespers, for room to exercise their talents in the new stile concertato (i.e. with instruments, as opposed to the older a capella style.) Palestrina managed to combine the polyphonic mass with the new rules, though the legend attached to his Missa Papæ Marcelli – that it saved the day for polyphony when the Council of Trent considered banning it – is almost certainly not true. Andrea Gabrieli, too, wrote mass settings – Hyperion have recently reissued an excellent performance of one, Pater peccavi, with other works, on CDH55265, recommended on Musicweb by Robert Hugill – but his nephew Giovanni, Monteverdi’s older contemporary, wrote only movements of the mass for St Mark’s, no complete settings.

For the same reason, English composers after the Reformation largely failed to compose settings of the Communion. Merbecke’s mediocre setting of the 1549 Prayer Book, The Book of Common Prayer Noted, survived for many years as the sole setting in general Anglican usage, with composers concentrating instead on settings of mattins and evensong and of the anthems sung at these services, especially after evensong (In Quires and Places where they sing, here followeth the Anthem, as the Prayer Book rubric quaintly puts it). 

The Mass In illo tempore, included in the 1610 collection, would have sounded rather old fashioned – at least comparatively unadventurous – alongside the much more dramatic Vespers of that collection. It is not entirely clear what Monteverdi’s purpose was in composing this work; it has even been suggested that it was an exercise in emulating the great mass settings of the previous century. Many of these settings employed the cantus firmus of a motet (or even a secular song, as in the case of the various English masses based on the Western Wind tune.) While Monteverdi does not exactly employ the cantus firmus technique, which normally assumes that the listener will recognise the underlying theme, In illo tempore is based on a little-known motet by Nicholas Gombert. Because the motet was virtually unknown, the notes suggest, the motives from it which Monteverdi employs are prominently stated at the beginning of the work.

I have seen this mass described as a self-conscious display of compositional erudition and a rather academic exercise; that makes it sound very dull indeed, which it isn’t. It may be an unostentatious work, but it is also beautiful. Perhaps that same reviewer had a change of heart when his publication made the original Hyperion issue a Critics’ Choice later that year. I do agree with him, however, in stating that it is doubtful whether this mass could ever receive a better performance. Christophers’ tempi for this work are faster than on the newer King’s Consort version – 28:24 against 32:24: the Kyrie at 3:39 against 4:27 sets the tone for the whole performance – but they never sound too fast: the music is given plenty of time to breathe.

The four-part Mass was first published seven years after Monteverdi’s death. Its date of composition is unknown but it is highly probable that it is at least later than In illo tempore. It is also a more immediately appealing work to the modern listener, though again much less dramatic than the Vespers. The shorter pieces, too, are attractive and all the works on this CD receive very convincing performances, well recorded in Hyperion’s usual substitute for St Mark’s, All Hallows, Gospel Oak. Just one small grouse: by my reckoning, the second Magnificat from the 1610 collection could also have been included on this CD. 

If you are looking for the blazing accompaniments which are such a feature of the 1610 Vespers, you will not find them here: the only (very discrete) accompaniment is provided by the organ. (A capella doesn’t necessarily mean totally unaccompanied.) But if you like Palestrina, you’ll probably like these works. If in doubt, try the 2½ - minute Realplayer sample of the Sanctus from In illo tempore on the Hyperion website. The Benedictus from the King’s Consort version is also available at that site.

If you really must have the music of this period with an exciting instrumental accompaniment, I firmly endorse Robert Hugill’s recommendation of the Gabrieli Helios CD which I have named above. In fact, since some initial disappointment with one of the first Helios reissues – Vaughan Williams’ Mystical Songs and Tudor Portraits on CDH55004 – I have not found one dud among the many CDs in this series. I even have to recommend the Vaughan Williams as the only current version at less than full price of the wonderfully robust Tudor Portraits, but the excellent version at full price on Chandos CHAN9593 with Dives and Lazarus is well worth the extra.

Brian Wilson



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