Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
Vespers of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1610) [83:57]; Exultent caeli [6:04]
Giovanni Battista FONTANA (1571-1630)
Sonata Secunda [7:06]
Grace Davidson, Kirsty Hopkins, Meg Bragle, Kim Porter (sopranos); David Clegg, Tim Travers-Brown (counter-tenors); Matthew Long, Nicholas Mulroy, Sam Boden (tenors); Alex Ashworth, Robert Davies, Philip Tebb, Eamonn Dougan (baritones); Stuart Young, William Gaunt (basses); Alison Bury (violin)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Robert Howarth
rec. live, Hall One, Kings Place, London, 30 August 2010. DDD
text and English translation included
SIGNUM SIGCD237 [49:08 + 47:59]

In his introduction to his admirable Cambridge Music Handbook on the Vespers John Wenham quotes the late Denis Arnold as saying that “no doubt all professions have their hazards, and for the student of Monteverdi the principal one is surely that musicological Lorelei, the Vespers (of 1610, of course). To edit it is to receive the kiss of death as a scholar. To perform it is to court disaster. To write about it is to alienate some of one’s best friends”. That was written in 1967 and despite these dire warnings he himself directed it on several occasions, one of which was my own introduction to the work. He would not have been surprised that his performances bore little resemblance to what we have here, although as above all an enthusiast for the music he would probably have welcomed the latter as yet another valiant attempt at getting closer to the heart of this amazing work.

The recording is of a live performance of the Vespers at the OAE’s headquarters in London. It is very obvious that as a result of the tour that preceded it the performers are wholly at ease with both the work and with the particular performance decisions that have been taken here. The various Psalms, Sacred Concertos and other items are presented in what might be called the “usual” order, that is, the order in which they appear in the original publication, although the Mass for six voices and the alternative setting of the Magnificat are omitted. There are none of the plainsong antiphons found on some recordings, but a later motet by Monteverdi – “Exultent caeli” – and a Violin Sonata by Giovanni Battista Fontana frame the Magnificat as antiphon substitutes. Pitch is always a matter for debate in relation to the Vespers, and Howarth pitches the performance at A=466, said to be the pitch employed in Venice at that date. This means that most of the work sounds a semitone above modern concert pitch, but in line with the general view of modern scholars Lauda Jerusalem and the Magnificat are sung down a fourth. This does mean the loss of the two wonderfully duetting tenors at the end, but instead we have two baritones and in this version at least they manage to convey that sense of exultation that earlier (and probably less historically correct) performances have led us to expect here.

The other major performance decision concerns the forces to be used. Bearing in mind that the Vespers were published as part-books rather than as a score Howarth assigns particular singers to particular part-books rather than to whichever lines would fit their normal range best. Given the difficulty of moving part-books around this would seem to be more likely to match the way in which it was expected that the work would be sung. It means that singers can at times find themselves in awkward parts of their range but it does add extra colour and at times changes the textures. For much to the time solo voices are used but in some items sections are doubled.

The resulting performance is obviously the product of considerable thought, careful rehearsal and much practical performance. In a word it is magnificent. The rhythmic clarity and bounce, sensuous care for individual lines, total technical security and sheer joy in music-making is at once exhilarating and moving. The recording is perhaps a little close at times but the textures are always clear. All of the individual singers meet the formidable demands made upon them with success, especially the solo tenors and sopranos. There are a few very minor fluffs but given that this was a live performance the surprise is that they are so few.

I have heard many performances and recordings of the Vespers. The sheer variety of response it elicits from performers is itself a source of great joy to the listener and sensible Vespers addicts will not want to restrict themselves to only one – even to three or four – versions, but I have to say that this is one of the most enjoyable I have heard in recent years. The presentation is of equal quality, with lengthy but readable notes on the work, the performance and the performers (very properly listed in full), and the text and an English translation. The Vespers is sometimes regarded as a kind of demonstration by the composer of the range and scale of his composing abilities. They require a similar range of responses from their performers and on this occasion they most certainly receive them.

John Sheppard

In a word: magnificent.