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Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610)
Céline Scheen, Mariana Florés (sopranos), Fabián Schofrin (counter-tenor), Fernando Guimarães, Zachary Wilder (tenors), Matteo Bellotto, Victor Torres(baritones)
Choeur de Chambre de Namur, Antiennes grégoriennes/Lionel Desmeules
Cappella Mediterranea/Leonardo García Alarcón
rec. 7-12 September 2013, Abbatial Church of Ambronay, France
AMBRONAY AMY 041 [41:29 + 46:07]

The remarkable international team of singers and instrumentalists assembled for this CD deliver a version of the 1610 Vespers that should quickly establish a new benchmark for recordings of this masterpiece.

Conductor Leonardo García Alarcón, himself Argentinean, has brought together a soprano and baritone from his own country (Mariana Florés and Victor Torres), an Italian baritone (Matteo Bellotto), a Brazilian tenor (Fernando Guimarães) and so forth. The ensemble is completed by his own Cappella Mediterranea and Namur Chamber Choir. He has also used a specialist group for the plainchants that punctuate the work, and these ‘antiennes grégoriennes’ sing with a wonderfully earthy and full-throated tone.

The ‘1610’ is such a rich and varied work, for within it we find a complete Magnificat, as well as numerous psalm and hymn settings. It is a famously influential piece and brings concerted sacred music – with shocking suddenness – into the modern world. Its success in a new treatment of ancient chants can be felt through subsequent choral works as diverse as Bach’s B minor Mass, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Brahms’ German Requiem – even Elgar’s Gerontius and Britten’s War Requiem.

The ‘earthy’ sound I mentioned above in connection with the plainsong is shared by the male soloists, who yet manage to sing with a great sense style and expression. The ‘echo duet’, Audi coelum, where the two tenors duet across the spaces of the great church of Ambronay, is superbly done. They, and their female counterparts, deal expertly with the often florid vocal lines, including those strange ‘Monteverdi trills’, with their rapid-fire repeated notes.

The use of a small chamber choir means there is no inconsistency in approach between the choral and solo singing, and the choruses have a glorious vitality. Listen to the ‘spring’ in the rhythms of ‘Lauda Jerusalem’, CD2 track 3 – full of life, and almost jazzy. That makes the sudden coming-together for the slower passages, including the awesome cadential phrases often sung to ‘Amen’, all the more imposing.

The Sonata sopra Sancta Maria is understandably one of the most celebrated numbers in the entire work. It is essentially an extended orchestral piece, with the extraordinary effect of a repeated phrase, to the words ‘Sancta Maria’, superimposed over the top in the sopranos. That said, the rhythmic pattern of the tune changes constantly according to the movement in the instrumental parts. It’s a fascinating and, I suspect, unique piece, and is performed superbly here. The cornetts and sackbuts (early types of trombones) are played with almost too great expertise, perfect in tone and intonation.

The young conductor Leonardo García Alarcón is a considerable scholar, but he has applied this scholarship with great love and considerable imagination. The great Marian hymn Ave maris stella (CD2 track 5), for example, has a series of vocal solos interspersed with instrumental ritornelli, or refrains. These themselves are a source of joy, with mellifluous contributions from recorders, harp, lutes and strings. It concludes with another sumptuous ‘Amen’ cadence.

The Magnificat (CD2 tracks 7-18) can be performed as a separate and independent work, and is in many ways the grandest part of the whole composition. The antiphonal male/female choral singing in et misericordium is memorably beautiful. Again, instrumental details, such as the ‘piffari’ (early woodwind instruments) in quia respexit, or another ‘echo duet’ for deposuit potentes, this time two cornetts, all add wonderful colours to the music.

If you love this work, so unlike anything else remotely comparable, you will surely find this a quite exceptional CD, gloriously performed, and expertly recorded too. For newcomers, it is the perfect introduction.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Previous review: Johan van Veen