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.
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
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.