Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610) [60:53]
Magnificat a 6 [17:01]
Joel Spears (lute, theorbo), Philip Spray (violone),
Scott Allen Jarrett, Karl Schrock (chamber organ),
Seraphic Fire and Western Michigan University Chorale/Patrich Dupré Quigley
rec. 11-15 March 2009, Nazareth College Chapel, Kalamazoo, Michigan
This is a fascinating and very well produced performance and recording. It has generated a good deal of critical acclaim and general interest. In August 2010 the news went out that this self-released recording had “soared to #1 on the iTunes classical chart over the weekend, and briefly rose above pop diva Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster (Deluxe Edition) on the iTunes all-genre chart”, which is quite an achievement in anyone’s book. The review here is of the CD version, though this does seem to be easier to acquire as a download.
Since reviewing the recording of this work with the King’s Consort on Hyperion I’ve yet to find a recording to challenge it as pre-eminent in the sheer ‘wow factor’ stakes. Seraphic Fire’s performance doesn’t change my view, but neither does it challenge on an equal basis. Conductor Patrick Dupré Quigley has made this recording with the intention of bringing Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine to the composer’s own age, that of the late Renaissance rather than the high Baroque of Bach or Handel. In his booklet notes, Quigley writes: “When one thinks of Monteverdi’s Vespers, inevitably our mind’s ear recalls the large-scale performances that have characterized the many historically informed recordings of this work by Baroque ensembles... To the 21st-century mind, the Vespers is synonymous with grandeur, a monolith of early Baroque musical form. But is this Vespers that we know, with its large choir and massive instrumental forces, the same one that Monteverdi himself heard while first composing it? Almost certainly not. When we think of Monteverdi, we now know him to be the torchbearer of a new age, a musical predecessor of Bach and Vivaldi. Monteverdi himself, however, had no concept of the music that was to come after him - he was a contemporary of Victoria, a young man during the age of Lassus. In his own time, Monteverdi’s sacred music was not the beginning of the Baroque; it was, rather, the pinnacle of the Renaissance.… One might even assume that the gigantic, set-in-the-grand-cathedral-of-San Marco performances were the exception rather than the norm.”
This I agree with in general, but there are one or two contradictions and points to be made on this topic. Quigley’s aim to work in “smaller forces and [an] intimate atmosphere [to] yield a version of Monteverdi’s magnum opus that is finally in tune with the inscription on the score’s title plate: “’suited for the chapels and chambers of princes’” falls a little when you see the size of the choir: 12 for Seraphic Fire and 41 for the Western Michigan University Chorale, which is a pretty Mahlerian sea of faces. You might fit 53 singers into the chamber of a prince, but the result would be more Marx Brothers than Monteverdi. These massed voices are not at work all of the time, but it does mean that the balance against the genuinely minimal accompanying instrumental forces is heavily stacked. With the staggeringly wonderful opening Domine ad adjuventum you not only miss the extra winds, but can’t really hear the remaining instruments either, so it sounds like a perfectly tuned choir singing a capella. The argument for leaving out the flutes, cornets and sackbuts is marked in the score, their role being given as ‘optional’. Monteverdi also indicates that the instrumental ritornelli ‘may be played or omitted as desired.’ This is all correct, and I am delighted to have this option of a ‘chamber’ version of the Vespers, but basing instrumentation on availability and budget would have been as much a feature of musical life in Monteverdi’s time as it is now in the world of jazz. The fully orchestrated version is the ideal, the optional smaller forces a compromise to allow performances to go ahead even when sponsorship has been withdrawn or all the brass players have gone off to do a royal wedding in the next town - if indeed the work was performed at all in the composer’s lifetime, something for which there is little evidence. I’m not arguing against a production of this nature, and indeed, it is enlightening to hear the piece as it will often have been heard in the past, although if one could afford 53 singers then the chances are they’d be more likely to have taken the option of dropping few vocalists and having a decent band in. Seeing music of this or any period as the result of what was going on at the time or earlier, rather than as a part of later periods the composer could never have known is not a new performance philosophy, and any authentic ensemble presenting Monteverdi in the mid 20th century style of massed pre-Rifkin Bach or Handel would have been run out of town long ago. Indeed, this applies to the inner politics of the work itself, and the very idea that the Vespers was primarily written for performance in St Marks in Venice is something of a myth. Monteverdi may have been writing to impress and with the aim of achieving the post of maestro di capello there, which did happen in 1613, but the forces available to the pragmatic composer in 1610 were those around him in Mantua. The alternative version of the Magnificat is a different story, with some recordings such as The King’s Consort offering both the 6 and the separately composed 7 voice with orchestra versions.
All of this said, this is a very fine performance and recording. The Seraphic Fire ensemble advertises itself as an ‘all star’ group, and the standard of the singing here is especially fine, both in the choral performance and solos. This is essential in what is indeed a ‘vocal led’ performance, and I am in awe of the quality of every aspect of the recording in this regard. The recording is made in an acoustic which, appropriately, is not as vast as some cathedral spaces used elsewhere. The general sonic picture is warm and deep, sympathetic to the lower notes of the chamber organ, though the upper embellishments in full-on movements such as the aforementioned Domine ad adjuventum do become rather lost. The tempi are all nicely in proportion, with no sense of extreme urgency or over sibilance in the swifter numbers, and a nice sense of space in the movements where there is a good deal of liturgical text to get through.
The Magnificat is another highly impressive and effective performance, though there are a worrisome few flat soprano 1 notes in the solo 30 seconds into the opening - the only minor blemish on an otherwise stunning technical achievement. The start of the Quia respexit has a real swing, and the atmosphere in beautiful choral sections such as the following Quia fecit and the final Sicut erat in principio is very moving. The King’s Consort version with is the closest to a like-with-like comparison I have to hand, and the difference in vocal approach is quite apparent. Robert King goes for a more active, animated feel in the vocal lines, the embellishments more energetically projected. The accompanying instruments are also more present in the recorded balance, though the general acoustic picture is larger scale, the soloists standing more apart from the choir. King is not anti-vibrato, but compare a duet like Esurientes and you do have a different feel of the phrasing, the Seraphic Fire singers kicking in with vibrato from the start. The Quigley then does the following Suscepit without vibrato. This doesn’t bother me particularly, but some commentators may pick up the decision making here, perhaps as having a lack of consistency.
This Vespers is less an either-or choice, more a fine supplement to the more opulently accompanied versions to be found in the catalogue. The general impression is rounder and more gentle than usual - appropriate for a ‘chamber’ version of this music, though not without plenty of contrast and rhythmic energy where required. I would recommend this version on the strength of its singing, and as a different perspective on a ‘must have’ masterpiece. Seraphic Fire doesn’t knock my favourite version with Robert King from its place of honour, but will take a permanent place at its side.  

Dominy Clements 

A remarkably fine supplementary version.