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Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567–1643)
Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610) [105.37] (1)
Selva morale e Spirituale (excerpts) (1640) [36.37] (2)
Taverner Choir (2)
Taverner Consort; Taverner Players/Andrew Parrott
rec. (1), 15-19 August 1983, 30 March 1984, All Saints Church, Tooting; (2) 6-9 December 1982, Temple Church. DDD
[67.55 + 74.27]
Experience Classicsonline

Certain recordings can be thought of as having a defining quality: recordings that helped change the way we listen to and think about particular works. For me, CDs coming into this category would include Nadia Boulanger’s Monteverdi madrigals, Roger Norrington’s Beethoven symphonies and Joshua Rifkin’s one-voice-to-a-part Bach. Also included in this category is Andrew Parrott’s 1984 version of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610.

Parrott’s recording strips back the work to one singer per part, removing massive choral sound and replacing it with the intensity of large-scale chamber music. Though we can never know for certain, this type of performance is probably much closer to what Monteverdi heard at St. Marks. But Parrott’s recording is notable for rather more than just jettisoning monumental choral sound.

The entire disc is organised around a liturgical reconstruction of the Vespers as done by Hugh Keyte. It includes a significant amount of plainchant. Here the Magnificat and each of the vespers psalms is preceded by the relevant plainchant antiphon. In lieu of the repeat of the plainchant antiphon to follow each Psalm, Parrott uses Monteverdi’s concerti from the 1610 Vespers along with two instrumental pieces by Cima. The result is convincing and, recorded in a naturalistic church acoustic, sounds as if one is eavesdropping on a real service.

What you don’t get here is a recording of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers as a monolithic masterpiece. Monteverdi probably did not intend the collection to be used all in one go. Parrott and Keyte’s reconstruction makes a convincing argument for itself, especially in this committed performance. Other, more recent recordings, such as that of Rinaldo Alessandrini by-pass the arguments by simply recording the Vespers in the published order. This latter approach, if taken really strictly, would require the performers to give us both versions of the Magnificat and the Mass setting also included in the published collection.

The last area where Parrott’s recording is ground-breaking is that it was the first to record the Magnificat and Lauda Sion transposed down a fourth, recognising that Monteverdi had written them using the conventions of the day. This is still one of those arguments which is not quite settled. Alessandrini, on his recording, uses the transposition because not to do so would require the overall ensemble to be enlarged. This transposition causes problems as it means that the Magnificat and Lauda Sion are placed rather too low in the singers’ voices, forcing them to sacrifice some of the expressiveness. As such, this is not an argument against the validity of the theories about the transposition. Monteverdi probably use a pitch-standard around a minor third above the A=440 used in this recording. No-one has, yet done a recording at this high pitch because it would entail a whole set of instruments being specially made.

Whilst this recording is defining, it is not necessarily definitive. Listeners wishing to investigate other performers who generally follow Parrott’s approach would be well advised to try the recordings of Philip Pickett and of Paul McCreesh.

Parrott’s pacing of the work is quite gentle at times, broken up as it is by plainchant and instrumental episodes. He also eschews the dramatics of some more recent accounts to create a performance of quiet sincerity.

He draws his singers from quite a large group of performers: Emma Kirkby, Tessa Bonner, Evelyn Tubb, Emily van Evera, Rogers Covey-Crump, Charles Daniels, Nigel Rogers, Joseph Cornwell, Andrew King, David Thomas, Richard Savage and Richard Wistreich.

The eagle-eyed amongst you will notice that the above list includes no altos. In line with Parrott’s general thinking in these areas, he avoids female altos and counter-tenors and uses two high tenors (Covey-Crump and Daniels) to sing the alto parts. This is facilitated by the low pitch of the Magnificat and Lauda Sion.

A notable addition to the standard roster of young period-practice singers in Parrott’s list is the name of Nigel Rogers, a performer from a previous generation of specialist singers. Rogers’ voice does rather stand out from the other tenors, but his way with Monteverdi’s vocal line is as inspiring and as stunning as ever. Parrott takes care only to use him in spot-lit roles, which works rather well.

The other singers are well balanced, and in the more choral passages produce a fine rich tone which belies the slim-line nature of the performers. To work out exactly who is singing what, you have to go to the EMI web-site to download the libretto. Frankly, Rogers apart, the singers are all of a part with no single voice standing out as more individual than the rest. Yes, you can pick out Emma Kirkby, but her dulcet tones are not that noticeably different from those of Tessa Bonner, Evelyn Tubb and Emily van Evera.

The big virtue of this recording is its naturalness and vitality of expression. The whole performance sounds exactly as if it ought to be this way. The performers give vivid performances within Parrott’s overall parameters. In no way does this sound like a museum reconstruction.

The Vespers are accompanied, on the second disc, by excerpts from the Taverner Consort’s earlier recording of Monteverdi’s Selve morale e Spirituale of 1640. Here we get Monteverdi’s later thoughts on the Dixit Dominus, Laudate Pueri and Magnificat – all in strong performances.

As indicated, the disc contains no libretto and only a summary of who performs what in the Vespers. To get more information the CD booklet says you must go to the web-site,, but I have so far failed to find the relevant texts on the site.

You will probably want another recording of Monteverdi’s Vespers in addition to this one. Perhaps Philip Pickett’s even more small-scale one, Robert King’s brilliant choral one or Paul McCreesh’s more recent liturgical reconstruction. The recording you choose will probably reflect how you really want to hear Monteverdi’s masterpiece. But of one thing I am certain, everyone ought to have a copy of this brilliant performance in their library.

Robert Hugill




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