This Avie production was issued to mark the 400th
anniversary of the publication of Monteverdi’s Vespers.
It is described as a ‘revised 2010 version’ with
new mixing and editing of a recording originally released on
the Eclectra label in 1999. Apollo’s Fire is the Cleveland
Baroque Orchestra, performing on period instruments and Apollo’s
Singers is its 19 strong professional chamber mixed chorus (3
cantus, 3 sextus, 4 altos, 3 tenors, 3 quintus, 3 basses). Except
for one treble, the soloists on this recording all come from
The opening Deus in adjutorium (CD1 tr. 1) has its plain
chords brightly stated by the choir with the instrumental embellishment
around these nicely blended. The playing itself is notably flamboyant.
Jeannette Sorrell even includes recorders, notably in the second
instrumental interlude (0:53), as a contrasting colour. These
are not usually heard till the Magnificat’s ‘Quia
respexit’. Above all she obtains a thoroughly festive
pep, with a yelp of triumph on ‘Alleluja’.
I compared the recording by The Taverner Consort, Choir and
Players/Andrew Parrott made in 1983-4 (EMI 2126852). Instrumentally
it’s rhythmically crisper, more restrained in approach
overall, but weightier vocally. Parrott’s was the first
recording to present the Vespers in a liturgical context by
adding plainsong antiphons before every psalm setting and the
closing Magnificat. Sorrell does likewise. These antiphons not
only add an authentic religious perspective, they also provide
an extra dimension through a brief period of contemplation on
sacred texts. These are related to the psalm settings and sacred
concertos which are Monteverdi’s contribution. The shortest
lasts 0:19, the longest 1:03. In the CD booklet Sorrell explains
her choice of a combination of antiphons from the feasts of
Mary of the Snow and the Assumption. In every case this sets
up a tonality that leads naturally to the following psalm. Parrott’s
choices happen to be different but it’s the principle
The vivacity of Sorrell’s instruments in the opening piece
certainly extends to the choir in the first psalm setting, Dixit
Dominus (tr. 3). The mysterious yet powerful layering of
the voice parts as they enter in turn at the opening. The sopranos
make an emphatic final entrance. Everything is cleanly and solemnly
conveyed with admirably tight ensemble throughout. A notable
and characteristic feature of the psalm settings is the simultaneous
layering of passages for soloists with plainchant. I’d
guess that Sorrell knows the famous 1989 recording by the Monteverdi
Choir and English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner (Archiv
4295652) because, like him, she also uses a sackbut to reinforce
the plainchant line. In this case it is to rather smoother and
more diffuse effect than Gardiner’s firmer body of sound.
It still obscures the voices a little, for example the bass
chant at ‘Virgam virtutis’ (1:25). Like Gardiner
Sorrell also has an urgent and pacy approach to the chordal
recitations which are a particular feature of this psalm. She
also presents its cadential flourishes such as that at ‘tuae’
(2:10) in a lively manner but in this doesn’t match Gardiner
for madrigalian lightness. This is partly because her approach
is weighed down a little by a prominent string accompaniment.
On the other hand she shows intelligent fusion and greater variety
of instrumental accompaniment as the psalm progresses. A climactic
moment is the sopranos’ assumption of the chant from ‘Iudicabit
in nationibus’ (4:23). This is sheeny enough but more
disciplined than stunning. The close is also strictly delivered
by the voices with rather more florid instruments. This is especially
true of the cornetti at 6:22, until the final reverential Amen,
almost unaccompanied, softens all.
This is a contrast from the contemplation of the preceding antiphon.
Parrott’s account takes much of that into the psalm setting
through the clarity of using one voice per chorus part. The
effect is heightened by minimal instrumental accompaniment.
The chant is very apparent without the need for sackbut doubling.
Now the opening has an intensity of projection but, by contrast,
Parrott dares to make the chordal recitations and cadential
flourishes more spacious and reflective. This is matched by
refined ritornelli, the psalm timing at 8:07 to Sorrell’s
7:13. Parrott’s ‘Iudicabit in nationibus’
is starker and has more impact than with Sorrell and in the
close the vocal counterpoint is more compellingly celebrated.
Nigra sum (tr. 4) for solo tenor is the first of the
‘sacred concertos’, motets which alternate with
the psalm settings. Sorrell’s Ian Honeyman performs the
voluptuous text from the Song of Solomon with an attractive
sunniness combined with religious fervour. He has a formidable
technique but for me his ornamentation is somewhat self-conscious
and over plentiful. Parrott’s Nigel Rogers is smoother.
His ornamentation is more deftly made intrinsic to the piece
rather than, as you feel with Honeyman, an added feature. However,
in total contrast the plain monotone line of Honeyman’s
sustained notes at ‘tempus putationis’ (2:25, 3:33)
is finely poised. His delicate closing ornamentation of ‘advenit’
(3:46) is lovely.
Sorrell’s second psalm setting, Laudate pueri (tr.
6) is refreshingly done, with enthusiastic, highly rhythmic
singing and relished contrasting sonorities. To the sopranos’
lovely descent at ‘Ut collocet eum’ (2:50) Sorrell
brings an appreciable calm and expansiveness in contrast to
the pace of the presentation around it. The Gloria is assured
but its Amen is too sinewy and rhythmic to disappear humbly
and mysteriously when pared down to the two tenor parts. Parrott
in this psalm, using one voice per part, is more laid back.
‘Ut collocet eum’ is smoothly glowing, the Gloria
being serene and ending in a sunnily domestic duet of homage.
Pulchra es (tr. 7), the second sacred concerto, is freshly
sung by sopranos Sandra Simon and Jennifer Ellis Kampani at
a measured tempo, unusual for Sorrell. This which makes its
inherent sexuality seem coy and its ornamentation calculated
while at ‘terribilis’ (1:16) they let rip like a
couple of gorgons. For Parrott Emma Kirkby and Tessa Bonner
flow more naturally, timing at 3:38 against Sorrell’s
4:02. They are simply happy, with ornamentation internalized,
‘terribilis’ bright but not explosive. The whole
effect is one of a quiet and strangely innocent serenity.
Sorrell’s Laetatus sum, the third psalm (tr. 9),
opens with a purposeful, rather rugged string-bass where Parrott
has much quieter chitarroni and chamber organ. Sorrell achieves
great contrast at the creamy and expansive sopranos’ gliding
over the other voices at ‘Stantes erant pedes nostri’
(0:28). Parrott’s sopranos have a more golden sheen and
are more progressive at this point. At ‘propter fratres
me’ (4:21) Sorrell’s chorus has pace and excitement.
His Gloria is decked throughout with cornetti and sackbuts and
in the final Amen the optimism of the rising second tenor part
is elevated over the falling first and second sopranos. Parrott
relies rather on great singing, virtually unaccompanied, but
his ‘propter fratres’ is still exciting because
of its momentum and gathering of parts and in the final Amen
the sopranos and tenors are evenly balanced.
Sorrell’s third sacred concerto, Duo seraphim (tr.
10) is intense, full-toned and an ardent homage by the three
tenor soloists Ian Honeyman, Gareth Morrell and Robert Psurny.
They deftly negotiate the flurries of semiquavers and demisemiquavers
and supply a very effective softer shading on occasion, especially
at ‘unum sunt’ (3:55). Albeit after this the ‘Sanctus’
cries in turn seem a touch self-conscious as displays of virtuosity.
Parrott’s recording, however, finds Nigel Rogers, Andrew
King and Joseph Cornwell racing too lightly through, conveying
eagerness but insufficient homage, the piece timing at 4:53
against Sorrell’s 5:51.
In the psalm Nisi Dominus (tr. 12) there are, in modern
terms, two SATTB choirs which alternate from ‘Nisi Dominus
custodierit civitatem’ (0:48) and only join again at the
second choir’s take-up of ‘Beatus vir qui implevit’
(2:28). Sorrell achieves liveliness and energy with a swinging,
enthusiastic rhythm but at a tempo so fast that the texture
and words lose clarity. The use of one voice part to lead the
others in all the single choir entries from 0:48 is exciting.
That said, the running quavers at ‘cum dederit’
(1:40) sound more like cackling semiquavers, and the change
to triple time at ‘sicut sagittae’ (2:05) isn’t
notable. When the choirs join again cries of ‘non confundetur’
are thrillingly imitated at close quarters from 2:30. The greater
breadth of the opening of the Gloria (2:48) still comes across
but sibilants become over-prominent. This is noticeable from
the imitation at ‘sicut erat in principio’ (3:16)
before a vivid closing moment of homage as the sunny Amen is
smoothly softened. Parrott is only a little slower than Sorrell
(4:50 against 4:36) but his double choir has more clarity without
loss of urgency. His single choir contributions, from solo voices,
are more measured so the ‘cum dederit’ quavers have
momentum without panic and the change to triple time is apparent.
Audi coelum (CD 2, tr. 1), the fourth sacred concerto,
is sung for Sorrell with conviction by Gareth Morrell and with
its semiquaver and demisemiquaver acrobatics well negotiated.
Ian Honeyman is a diligent echo, especially when Morrell’s
ornamentation is showy as at ‘Talis’ (4:29). The
choral section (tr. 2) begins bright and nifty before becoming
adoring at ‘quae cum gratia’ (0:45), sunnily decked
with brass. Things become yet more worshipful and dreamy at
‘cuius nomen invocamus’ (1:53) and then calmly prayerful
at ‘Benedicta es’ (2:43). Parrott’s solo is
impressively sung by Nigel Rogers but for me excessively ornamented
so the emphasis is unduly on vocal display. The choral section,
presented one voice to a part with just 2 chitarroni, chamber
organ and violone, has a personal fervour and golden transparency
which allows the text to be presented with great effectiveness
without marked changes in mood.
Lauda Jerusalem (tr. 4)isthe second double
choir psalm, this one for two SAB choirs with a tenor part providing
the chant which cuts across both. Sorrell performs it transposed
down a tone and presents it as a blaze of sunny sound. There’s
an enthusiastic acclamation of ‘Lauda’ by the six
voice parts. The brass is doubled in response to the opening
tenor part, here allotted to a soloist. Once the momentum has
an undercurrent of quavers from ‘Quoniam confortavit’
(0:25) things get very lively indeed. This is exultant singing
with the imitation between the parts relished and tremendously
stimulating as a tapestry of sound even if the text gets a bit
lost at times. The opening of the Gloria (2:17) is broader and
grander but the full chorus suddenly shifts to the edges of
the sound spectrum behind a veil of brass. Clarity returns at
the second choir’s ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctum’
(2:42) and the tenors blaze forth gloriously uninhibitedly at
‘et semper’ (3:12). The closing Amen is just a touch
more sedate. Parrott performs this psalm transposed down a fourth
and is literally low key in comparison though the words are
clearer, the chant light but explicit. His Gloria has striking
dignity and tautness.
The Sonata sopra Sancta Maria (tr. 5) is a highly varied
parade of instrumental sleight of hand over which is fused the
chant ‘Sancta Maria ora pro nobis’. Sorrell brings
to the table a festive swing and lilt from the outset, including
blithe dancing from the two violins in duet (1:05). The chant
is first delivered by the treble John Buffett (1:45), a new
vocal colour emphasising the purity of the prayer and its association
with that of Mary. The cornetti cavort gleefully (1:58) yet
as the instruments grow more climactic the voice remains steadfast.
Then a small chorus of sopranos take up the chant with the treble
which makes the vocal contribution more insistent and in that
way climactic and finally (6:10) more resiliently assured. Parrott
is more stylish and regal but not as joyous. He uses a soprano
soloist throughout, Tessa Bonner. She sounds treble-like but
more objective than Sorrell’s contrast of voices which
matches well the development of the instrumental exposition.
The antiphon (tr. 6 to 0:27) precedes the hymn Ave maris
stella. Because its text is that of the hymn’s first
verse it isn’t separately tracked or listed in the CD
booklet. The 8-part texture of the hymn itselfis warmly
presented by Sorrell, enriched by strings’ doubling, yet
in a dignified, stately manner. From its second verse (1:38)
the texture is lightened to 4 parts with just continuo accompaniment.
The tempo is similarly quicker and kept progressive, a change
which remains through another 4-part verse and then 3 solo voice
verses until the 8-part doxology. Between these verses are instrumental
ritornelli. The first (2:07) is given to brass consort
headed by cornetti and the second (3:08) to strings who ornament
stylishly and imaginatively. The third (4:08) is allocated to
brass again who match the strings in imagination but not in
stylishness. The fourth (5:11) deploys a consort of recorders,
bringing a fresh sparkle. The choral doxology (6:12) is majestic
without being heavy, its closing Amen achieves a searing beauty.
Parrott’s account of this hymn is in its 8-part verses
more emotive and adoring with more yearning projection than
Sorrell. He only uses continuo with the voices. Even so he obtains
contrast by using a medium size choir for the 8-part verses
and solo voices for the 4-part ones. His ritornelli which
alternate between strings and brass are plainer than Sorrell’s
yet purposeful enough.
To the closing Magnificat (tr. 8) Sorrell brings an impressive
combination of dignity and fervour. The opening is at first
soft then soon very grand. When all 7 voice parts and instruments
are combined (0:19) the music is wonderfully effective. Generally,
however, the emphasis is on contemplation, as in the contrast
of the solo treble used again to display the individual soul,
‘anima mea’ (0:30). ‘Et exultavit’ vividly
juxtaposes two bristling tenor soloists with the calm chant
of the altos. The bristling quality extends to the ritornello
of ‘Quia respexit’ and the violins’ duet in
‘Quia fecit’. These provide yet another layer in
addition to the two tenor soloists and the altos. ‘Et
misericordia’ offers rapt contemplation for lower and
upper voices in turn. This is more penetratingly emotive performed
at original pitch as Sorrell does here in comparison with Parrott’s
transposing down a fourth. The same can be said for Sorrell’s
‘Esurientes’ which is slowly presented and drips
emotion; the same goes for the fresh and crisp ‘Suscepit
Israel’. The Gloria Patri projects great feeling and edge
as the tenor soloist is echoed with sopranos’ chant. Parrott
secures a greater contrast of intimacy here by having a solo
soprano also providing the chant before the full forces of ‘Sicut
erat in principio’ which both Parrott and Sorrell deliver
sonorously. The latter is more grandly capped by Amens with
something of ecstatic abandon beyond Parrott’s lightly
To sum up, Sorrell’s is an eclectic Vespers in which there’s
never a dull moment. The instrumentation is the fullest, the
playing the most high spirited I’ve ever heard. It has
great spontaneity, as does the singing. If you want clarity
of texture and line the generally one voice to a part texture
of Parrott is preferable. It offers less sheer exhilaration
but is gripping in a different way. On the other hand Sorrell’s
account also vividly conveys the meditative aspects and succeeds
in integrating the antiphons of the liturgical context.