Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610)[90:06]
Apollo’s Singers, Apollo’s Fire/Jeannette Sorrell
rec. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Cleveland Heights, Ohio, November 1998. DDD.
Booklet includes Latin sung texts and an English translation.
AVIE AV 2206 [41:52 + 48:14]

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 this chorus.
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 that’s important. 
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 sprung delivery.

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. 

Michael Greenhalgh  

An eclectic Vespers in which there’s never a dull moment.