First, let’s clear away a little uncertainty. The Vespers were published in 1610 but composed over an unknown period several years before. Monteverdi, often associated with Venice, was living, rather unhappily, in Mantua working for the hopelessly unsympathetic Gonzaga family. Secondly, he may have submitted the work as calling-card on his application for the position of Maestro di Capella; we don’t really know. We do however know that Monteverdi expressed the wish on the title page that the Vespers could be performed not only in church but also as chamber music. I quote from the first class and detailed booklet notes by Christina Pluhar: ‘it is stated that the movements scored for smaller forces, can be performed in princely chambers, that is to say, divorced from liturgical occasions, thus suggesting that the work is not necessarily to be given as a complete entity.”
At least two types of performance and recording seem to be perfectly appropriate. One, a reconstruction of Vespers with suitable antiphons. Two, a concert version, which, in the nature of these things, offers the performers the possibility of a virtuoso showpiece. It’s the latter case we have here. Any CD collection would benefit from both types of recording and there is no doubt that this new one is exciting and certainly one for own times.
There was a time when performances - and recordings - of this work were occasional; there was a sense of moment about a performance. Now, it is all too familiar. Only a few year’s ago I sang solo in a school performance of the Vespers and I have heard of others. This familiarity has led to a confidence and a surety but with this comes the danger of becoming blasé. I wouldn’t like to accuse ‘L’Arpeggiata’ of that defect but the extraordinary speed of several movements has provoked some comment in the musical press. Indeed, the fact that the whole work, for the first time, fits onto one CD is remarkable. The album comes with a second disc which - lasting twenty-two minutes - gives us some idea of how the performers recorded and rehearsed. It’s odd that the pieces are not presented in order. The last of the four tracks which bears the title ‘Dixit Dominus’ is just a series of stills taken at the actual performance. Nevertheless, watching how the singers work together and react to each other and how Pluhar discreetly directs from the theorbo marshalling her troops is quite fascinating.
I thought that it might be quite interesting to put this new version beside two slightly unfashionable ones, the second recording by Nikolaus Harnoncourt with the Arnold Schoenberg Choir of 1986 on Das Alte Werk (4509 92629-2) and that by René Jacobs on Harmonia Mundi (901566.67) in 1995. Both use antiphons and both, like many others have a large choir. Jacobs uses the Nederlands Kamerkoor. The new version uses only voice per part. In many cases because the singing is so fine, beautifully articulated and recorded it does not seem to matter, except in two cases. In the instrumental ‘Sonata Sopra Sancta Maria’ the vocal plainchant line is carried by the two sopranos. They do so a little feebly and with much effort against the strong instrumental contribution. Similar struggles can be heard in the ‘Lauda Jerusalem’. L’Arpeggiata chose the transposed version (down a fourth) taking away the excitement of the bright, impatient mood of the seven-part setting. Its speed and tumbling words make it seem too light and madrigalian but very dance-like. The Magnificat is also performed in the transposed version; the reason in both cases being that Monteverdi uses a high clef called a chiavette and may well have expected a lower pitch.
The ‘Ave Maris Stella’ in which differing instrumental groups pleasingly play the ritornelli, sounds rather like a galliard with its one-in-a-bar pulse. Naturally the question of tempi must be addressed. Comparison with the two versions above time-wise proves what one might expect. Removing the antiphons from the equation and taking the early Dixit Dominus as an example, Jacobs clocks up just over eight minutes; interestingly Harnoncourt is twenty seconds faster. These steadier speeds do add a certain dignity, even nobility and serene pacing to the setting. L’Arpeggiata take just, six and a half minutes, which is forty seconds faster than the brilliant John Eliot Gardiner on Archiv. Does it matter?
Except for the occasions mentioned above the pace never feels pushed beyond the limits. One is constantly astonished by the clarity of the singing and the articulation of the instrumental work as they dizzily add cadential elaboration and other decorations.
We have to understand the approach as, at the end of her notes, Christina Pluhar explains, “the cantus firmus must be able to generate its own musicality and line through the choice of rapid tempos while at the same time permitting concertante virtuosity….”
So, this for me will never be my only version of the Vespers but it’s one I will often refer to and enjoy for its sheer vitality and excitement.
It’s beautifully recorded and presented with hard-back packaging and full texts. Much to my pleasure we also get separate tracks for the sections of the Magnificat.