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July 2022

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CD: MDT AmazonUK

Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610) [90:02]
Nicholas Mulroy, Thomas Hobbs (tenors);
Choir of New College Oxford; Charivari Agréable/Edward Higginbottom
rec. St. Michael’s Church, Summertown, Oxford, 13-16, 22-23 July 2009, DDD.
Booklet includes Latin sung texts and an English translation.
NOVUM NCR 1382 [57:30 + 33:02]

Experience Classicsonline
This 400th anniversary recording of Monteverdi’s Vespers can claim to be more authentic than most. Not only are period instruments used but also all male voices in a choir whose raison d’être is to sing services in its college chapel.

The opening Deus in adjutorium (CD1 tr. 1) has its plain chords firmly stated by the choir. The spotlight is given to the instrumental embellishment around these chords which Monteverdi reworked from the Toccata opening his opera Orfeo. This is appropriate because it sets the pattern for the choral psalm settings where other voices are layered over the plainchant element. Its dancing instrumental interludes become the choir’s Alleluias. The effect is festive and sunny, especially given the florid yet entirely fitting ornamentation added by Charivari Agréable. The recording has a pleasing sense of ample, yet not vast, ecclesiastical space. Arguably the forward positioning of the instruments favours them a touch overmuch in relation to the voices.

I compared the 1989 recording by the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner (Archiv 4295652). This was made live at St Mark’s Venice, which is a vast ecclesiastical space. There’s a high current awareness of Gardiner’s interpretation given his Proms performance on 10 September 2010 and European tour. In this opening movement Edward Higginbottom’s voices are more intent and worshipful, Gardiner’s more eager and acclamatory. The festive instrumentation, springing Alleluias and moment to take in all the grandeur in the final Amen’s ritenuto are similar. Higginbottom offers an additional contrast by giving the repeat of the instrumental interlude (1:00) to strings alone after its first appearance on brass and strings.

The two interpretations become more contrasted in Dixit Dominus (tr. 2), the first psalm. Higginbottom is striking for the cleansing clarity of the trebles’ entries, the first after the lower voices introduce the text. Their shining assumption of the chant from ‘Iudicabit in nationibus’ (5:32) makes a stunningly scouring sound which can’t be achieved with sopranos. They make a similar fine contribution to the starkly etched doxology. The passages for soloists are also well projected, though more contemplatively than Gardiner’s. They are scrupulously layered over the clear yet not dominating chant presented by a few basses. What works less well is the deliberation, at times over-careful, in the cadential flourishes. You can hear this, for example on ‘tuis’ (4:25). Gardiner’s account is more dramatized and exciting with marked contrasts in dynamics, such as the softer opening before, in his case, the sopranos enter. Gardiner has a faster, even aggressive, approach to the chordal recitations and is more propulsive in the cadential flourishes; that of ‘tuis’ lighter than Higginbottom and madrigalian. Gardiner’s lone voice intoning the ‘Gloria patri’ is more mystical, his choral response more dancing, but the quiet gravity of Higginbottom’s Amen is telling in a different way.

Nigra sum (tr. 3) for solo tenor is the first of the ‘sacred concertos’, motets which alternate with the psalm settings. Nicholas Mulroy performs its juicy text from the Song of Soloman with a lovely candour. The ardour is there but there’s also something of decorum, a guileless quality, so it comes across as an active meditation, a kind of decent intimacy. This is exemplified by Mulroy’s delicate application of ornamentation, albeit varied and elaborated, at the return of ‘surge, amica mea’ (3:02) and the melodic climax on ‘veni’(3:17). For Gardiner Mark Tucker, because in a vast acoustic, is more projected, less intimate. His adding more ornamentation emphasises the difference. I prefer Mulroy’s greater transparency.

For Higginbottom the second psalm Laudate pueri (tr. 4) is a sonorous call to worship, for Gardiner an eager invitation. At ‘Sit nomen Domini’ (0:50) Higginbottom gives us the clarity of the vocal chant from the tenors alone beneath the two treble soloists. Gardiner enhances the colour with a sackbut on the chant line, but this obscures the voices a little. Higginbottom only employs instrumental doubling of vocal lines in the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria and Magnificat, where it’s specifically requested by Monteverdi; Gardiner does it for emphasis at climactic moments in the psalms too so it rather capriciously comes and goes. With Higginbottom at ‘Excelsis super omnes gentes dominus’ (1:41) you can marvel at the beaming trebles’ chant above the semi-quaver pyrotechnics of his two guest tenor soloists, Mulroy and Thomas Hobbs. Gardiner offers more contrast in tempo. His choruses are more urgent and he slows down for a creamy sopranos’ descent at ‘Ut collocet eum’ where Higginbottom (3:10) goes for a fuller, more ethereal tone and the surprise of an ornamented treble part moving to the first cadence. As the Amen diminishes from six to two voice parts Gardiner has it more lightly wafting to the skies and disappearing. Higginbottom is crisply rhythmic but remains very present.

Pulchra es (tr. 5), the second sacred concerto, is sung by Higginbottom’s trebles Sebastian Cox and James Swash with exemplary clarity and beauty of tone. It’s also a lusty account, in the athletic sense. For revelation of the inherent sexuality you have to turn to Gardiner’s sopranos Marinella Pennechi and Ann Monoyios, but in a context of more appreciation of artifice. Solo gives way to duet magically at ‘averte oculos tuos’ as the top soprano moves from D to G sharp with the second soprano moving from G to B. This is what happens in the 1999 Kurtzman edition and I wonder why Higginbottom here (2:35) opts for a more severe first treble moving from G to G sharp with the second treble staying on B.

Higginbottom’s Laetatus sum, the third psalm (tr. 6), opens in relaxed fashion soon offset by the bright, fluorescent trebles’ entry. Thereafter the chorus displays rhythmic and contrapuntal bite with ‘propter fratres me’ (4:45) especially affirmative and the Gloria a flood of sound. Gardiner’s, use of string-bass where Higginbottom has organ alone provides a more smiling and purposeful impetus while his doubling brass instruments make for a sunnier Gloria.

In Higginbottom’s third sacred concerto, Duo seraphim cry expansively and ardently. When the focus later moves from the two seraphim to the Trinity, Father, Word and Holy Spirit, a third tenor soloist Thomas Raskin from New College Choir holds his own with guests Mulroy and Hobbs. Those flurries of semi-quavers and demisemiquavers vividly quiver and all three provide a magnificent closing cadential embellishment. Uncharacteristically Gardiner is slower (6:43 against Higginbottom’s 5:54) and not to advantage: the joins in the runs become apparent. His soloists’ homophony is more rapt than Higginbottom’s but assigning ‘Plena est omnis terra’ to chorus reduces the intensity of the piece.

In Higginbottom’s case the double choir psalm, Nisi Dominus (tr. 8) is a little laid back for the urgency to be telling when one choir enters cutting across the other. That said, the later running quavers are firmly articulated, the change to triple time at ‘sicut sagittae’ (2:32) leads to a more swinging manner and the Gloria has an exultant head of steam. Gardiner is lighter, sunnier, but the text deserves Higginbottom’s greater edge.

Audi coelum (tr. 9), the fourth sacred concerto with its demanding range, the low rather than the high for a tenor, is intently and finely sung by Hobbs with Mulroy an attentive echo. Its choral section is formal and the sheer body of sound Higginbottom raises makes for a satisfying peroration. Gardiner’s Nigel Robson adds ornamentation more regularly which makes the solo seem more calculated. Hobbs reserves added ornamentation more effectively at moments of heightened expression like ‘coelos’ (2:59). Gardner, however, has a more effectively distanced echo in Tucker and a choral section of more striking changes than Higginbottom’s in tempo, dynamic and mood, especially its hushed close.

Lauda Jerusalem, the second double choir psalm, features more regular interchange between the two choirs. From Higginbottom, who transposes the piece down a tone, you get firmness of choral acclamation. It’s stirringly sung but also with a sense of due solemnity. Gardiner is faster (3:51 against Higginbottom’s 5:06) and, at original pitch, happier with a dancing evangelism which nevertheless doesn’t short-change those moments of top line descant. He uses full brass to point up the grandeur of the Gloria.

The Sonata sopra Sancta Maria brings us back to the instrumental dominance of the opening movement. This one is a highly varied parade of instrumental sleight of hand over which is fused the trebles’ chant ‘Sancta Maria ora pro nobis’. On the one hand it’s formal and weighted, on the other clear and bright, an uneasy ambiguity well realized by Higginbottom. His trebles have an edge bringing a keenness, a real pleading to what is after all a prayer. Gardiner’s instruments are lighter and more dancing. He does use young voices here, but still the mixed ones of the London Oratory Junior Choir. They are eager and welcoming but Gardiner doesn’t convey Higginbottom’s progression of feeling as the piece becomes more climactic.

Now comes a fresh perspective, the hymn Ave maris stella. Its seven verses necessitate a melodically more uniform progress than previously but this is enlivened by variety of scoring: verses 1 and 7 for double choir, verses 2 and 3 for first and second choir in turn, verses 4 to 6 for solo voices. Higginbottom makes the hymn an active witness, quite personal and expressive, with a sinewy quality where Gardiner goes for the soft contours of humble adoration. Unlike Higginbottom, he misses the personal quality of verse 4 by not assigning it, as marked, to a solo treble.

In the closing Magnificat for 7 voice parts (CD2 tr. 3) the position is reversed at ‘anima mea Dominum’ (0:21) after the opening statement of ‘Magnificat’, where Higginbottom uses all his trebles rather than the solo Monteverdi prescribed while Gardiner has just one soprano. Higginbottom transposes the Magnificat down a minor third whereas Gardiner performs it at original pitch. Gardiner’s tenor soloists are more operatic in ‘Et exultavit’ but Higginbottom provides a more expressive, caring chant from his altos or falsettisti as they are termed in the CD booklet. In ‘Quia respexit’ piffari (shawms) and recorders are pleasingly layered over the voices but a slowish tempo for ‘Quia fecit’ makes its duet for bass soloists rather stiff.

The alternation of low and high choral voices in ‘Et misericordia’ is pointed with a stark realism by Higginbottom where Gardiner prefers a creamy mysticism. Higginbottom chooses to have ‘Fecit potentiam’ sung decorously by a body of falsettisti. Soloist Michael Chance for Gardiner shows that a more declamatory manner from one voice is more telling. ‘Deposuit’ features 2 cornetts and then 2 violins above and between the statements of the chant. In both cases the second instrument echoes the first and this is less markedly realized by Higginbottom than by Gardiner. This is probably because Higginbottom’s recording venue, St Michael’s Summertown, while amply proportioned and a pleasing acoustic, is only of medium size. Whatever the reason, all the echo effects in this recording can only be termed moderate.

‘Suscepit Israel’ features glowing treble soloists and a smiling chant line from the tenors as opposed to Gardiner’s lighter, operatic sopranos who are, however, also effective. The vocal arabesques which begin the Gloria are finely done by Mulroy and Hobbs but a bit urbane in comparison with the more colourful Robson and Tucker for Gardiner. Tucker is more distantly and dramatically in echo. Higginbottom, on the other hand, brings more fervour to the chant. His ‘Sicut erat’ has more tautness and sense of climax than Gardiner but the latter’s Amen, like much of his faster rhythm choral work light but dancing, is more incisive.

To sum up, Higginbottom offers a distinctive Vespers with some winning features: a choral sound quality closer to the original than most recordings. Some concentrated, dedicated solo singing within which ornamentation has been integrated as a living element, and an emphasis on the work’s religious and contemplative context. However, as I have indicated above, there are times when the approach seems over-deliberate. Gardiner embraces the work as full-blooded music-drama. The choice between him and Higginbottom is in two differing manifestations of its spirituality. Higginbottom stresses a purity and intentness in its religious witness, Gardiner a more variegated and human theatricality.

Higginbottom gives you the Vespers complete, but unlike Gardiner he only provides the Magnificat for 7 voice parts and instruments, not in addition the alternative Magnificat for 6 voice parts and organ that Monteverdi also provided in his 1610 publication. The fuller choral and instrumental Magnificat is preferable and more in keeping with the other movements, but the contrast of the two settings is educative, an opportunity to provide an extra 20 minutes music not taken by Higginbottom, with the result that the second disc of this two CD set plays for only 33 minutes. This objection is, however, outweighed in that the Novum set is competitively priced to take account of this and accordingly provides arguably better value for money than Gardiner. In both cases the conductor has written the booklet notes. Higginbottom’s here are particularly lucid and instructive with regard to the work’s background, music and performance issues.

Michael Greenhalgh


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