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Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610) [86:05]
Marie Kuijken (soprano); Gerlinde Sämann (soprano); Alessandro Carmignani (alto); Paolo Costa (alto); Jean François Lombard (alto); Fabio Furnari (tenor); Giuseppe Maletto (tenor); Fulvio Bettini (bass), Marco Scavazza (bass); Valter Testolin (bass)
La Petite Bande/Sigiswald Kuijken
rec. 11-13 November, 2007, Predikherenkerk, Leuven, Belgium. DDD
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72311 [53:43 + 32:22]
Experience Classicsonline

This is an intentionally understated performance of what is probably Monteverdi's best known choral work. Restful, subdued, nuanced with good cause - and to great effect. This won't be the Vespers for those who want the bold brass of a more exuberant interpretation. Yet it is a faithful, subtle and persuasive account.

It's sometimes wrongly believed that the Vespers were written for the vast and resonant spaces of St Mark's, Venice. In fact, completed in 1610, they predate the composer's appointment to the position of maestro di cappella of the basilica by three years. Although it is usually conjectured - quite reasonably - that Monteverdi trusted that to expose his expertise and splendid imagination by presenting this outstanding collection of pieces to the Mantuan court would strengthen his claim to the position in Venice. It probably did.

The numbers in the Vespers are apparently unconnected - or at best disparate in origin and conception. There's little or no evidence that Monteverdi planned to have them performed as a whole, a sequence - as we are used to today. Nor, certainly, that they would be the kind of blockbuster quasi-oratorio in the way they have often been treated since their re-entry into the repertoire from the 1960s.

Yes, the music is polyphonic. Indeed it's grand (not grandiose). And certainly profound. But in some ways the greatest and most lasting appreciation of the force, passion and intricacy of the work comes by concentrating on each part of the sequence in its own right; rather than a noisy rush to the more spectacular passages.

Such an approach has informed the interpretation of Kuijken with his Petite Bande, who record the Vespers for the first time. Listen, for example, to the humble, unostentatious and yet highly distilled and flavour-rich Nigra Sum [CD1 tr.3] and the more ebullient, yet here quite subdued Dixit Dominus [CD1 tr.2]. Even the Laudate Pueri [CD1 tr.4] sounds closer to one of Monteverdi's madrigals than to a church cantata (the text is from Psalm 112). As Monteverdi always wanted, the words, the articulation and phrasing of the devotional sentiment are paramount. The singing could hardly be less operatic!

Kuijken went back to Monteverdi's own careful instructions about how this music should be performed. And followed it to the letter. Given the freedom with which musicians at the time worked, to restrict oneself (as here) to such a precise set of stylistic guidelines may seem odd: they could choose 400 years ago, so why not do so now?

Well, because Kuijken has succeeded in enhancing (uncovering?) a spiced and trenchant drama in the Vespers. One to a part, the ten soloists of La Petite Bande each play a consistent role throughout the performance. These same soloists sing the choral parts. Again, this favours greater intimacy and integrity; a greater unity to the whole. We become familiar with singing and interpretative styles. The music becomes more immediate and approachable. The way the voices interact in the Laetatus sum [CD1 tr.6], for example, shows this working very well. More dialogue than declamation.

Similarly, instruments have been used more sparingly on this recording. And they are either contemporary ones, or reproductions more faithfully held and played than is sometimes the case. Nor is this performance conducted as such. In his pithy and apposite introduction in the accompanying booklet, Kuijken explains his belief in the communal, joint craftspersonship approach which seems likely to have elicited the best and most persuasive results in Monteverdi's time - so the same now. Ownership; joint investment; subscription to a commonly held conception.

If you want a modern, spare and concentrated Vespers, this will be for you. Let it  grow on you; you'll come to appreciate how intensity and focus can be achieved through an almost introverted distillation - yet a gentle and undemonstrative one. There is certainly a real emphasis on the text. The tempi, momentum (listen to the clip of the Nisi Dominus [CD1 tr.8]), technical attack and expressive power of the performers are still highly polished.

The recording, not too resonant yet spacious, supports these priorities. The miking of all the soloists is appropriately close. Very satisfactory. The booklet contains Latin, English, French and German texts in full with brief backgrounders on Kuijken and La Petite Bande.

This recording is a winner. Not by the opulent, extrovert terms by which we usually judge Monteverdi's Vespers. But because Kuijken's conception has unselfconsciously grasped the piety, wonder, celebratory nature and almost passive loveliness of Monteverdi's idea without any kind of 'stripping away' of varnish. And because the execution of the consequent performance reaches such high standards in sound and interpretation. Definitely one to add to the collection.

Mark Sealey


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