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Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
Vespro della Beata Vergine
Céline Scheen, Mariana Flores (soprano), Fabián Schofrin (alto), Fernando Guimarães, Zachary Wilder (tenor), Matteo Bellotti, Victor Torres (baritone), Sergio Foresti (bass)
Choeur de Chambre de Namur, Cappella Mediterranea/Leonardo García Alarcón
rec. 7-12 September 2013, abbatial church of Ambronay, France. DDD
Texts and translations included
AMBRONAY AMY041 [41:29 + 46:07]

The Vespro della Beata Vergine by Claudio Monteverdi is one of the greatest masterpieces in music history. It shares the fate of some other great works, such as Mozart's Requiem and Bach's Mass in B minor in that it raises many questions which have not been definitively answered as yet. In regard to the present recording two issues are of particular relevance. Was this collection conceived as a liturgical unity? If so, for which feast could it have been intended?

In his liner-notes Denis Morrier argues that it is almost certain that the Vespers were not intended as a liturgical unity. It is then quite surprising that Leonardo García Alarcón decided to perform it as such anyway. This resulted in the need to answer the next question. Morrier states that the five concerti could not find a place in any of the seven Marian feasts of the liturgical calender. The notes on the interpretation add that "since Monteverdi built his polyphony sopra canti fermi, it is a straightforward matter to discern the plan of the tones used for each of the five psalms and the Magnificat. Until now, it has proved impossible to identify any office among all the feasts of the Virgin or of other female saints proper to particular places (...) that employs the same tones for the antiphons as those in which Monteverdi wrote his psalms". Several solutions which have been chosen by other conductors are called not "wholly satisfactory". The option chosen here is admitted to be "anachronistic". It consists in composing an office in which the tones of the antiphons correspond to the tones of the psalms and the Magnificat. The interpreters chose the antiphons for the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (8 September), "the most important of the official feasts of the Virgin in the early seventeenth century, celebrated with particular fervour in Venice". The melodies were composed in the correct tones on the basis of then existing formulas.

The performers have paid special attention to one aspect of performance practice: how to perform the plainchant? In all the recordings which I have heard there is quite a difference between the plainchant and Monteverdi's compositions. This is partly due to the difference in style, but also to the way plainchant is usually performed. According to Lionel Desmeules this style is based on performances of the monks of Solesmes and reflects the aesthetics of the 19th century "steeped in piety, mingled with sentimentalism, which considered reference to a past in ruins to be the only hope for church music". This seems a general statement which fails to do real justice to all previous performances and recordings. Over the years I have heard many recordings in which the plainchant was performed without a hint of sentimentality. That said, most conductors seem to pay little attention to the issue of the performance practice of plainchant in a work like this. Any attempt to find a more historically aware approach deserves a welcome. Here the performances are inspired by the views of Marcel Pérès which he practises with his Ensemble Organum. Among the most obvious features are larger dynamic contrasts and a more declamatory way of singing. I noticed also some traces of traditional music around the Mediterranean. However, Pérès' views are not universally accepted and whether it comes close to the way plainchant was sung in Monteverdi's time is anybody's guess. I also often wonder whether plainchant shouldn't rather be performed like Monteverdi's psalms and concertos, with ornamentation and something like messa di voce.

A declamatory manner of singing is also a feature of the way Monteverdi's works are performed here. The choice of tempi - often on the fast side - is based on the rhythm of the text. It also makes García Alarcon take some liberties in the treatment of the tempi, sometimes slowing down and then speeding up. The same amount of freedom is applied to the concertos in which the soloists take the time to explore the emotions of the text and the addition of ornaments. Sometimes the performances are on the verge of overdoing the pathos, for instance in the very slow conclusion of Pulchra es and the way the solo part in Audi coelum is performed. In the latter piece it is notable that the solo part and the echo are performed by basses rather than tenors. Unfortunately the booklet doesn't reveal the names of the singers in the concertos.

The authors of the two essays in the booklet admit that this performance is not historically plausible in some essential parts. Their honesty is praiseworthy. Nonetheless the approach is certainly original which makes this recording highly interesting. When performers try to find new and unusual solutions to problems which seem impossible to solve, they deserve applause as long as they don't violate the very foundations of historical performance practice. The approach chosen here is defended with great conviction. In fact, musically speaking this performance should be rated among the very best on the market.

The number of singers which should be involved in performances of the Vespers is another issue of controversy to which no definitive solution seems possible. This kind of music is basically ensemble music: music for a vocal and instrumental ensemble whose members take care of the solo parts. The soloists here are not part of the choir and the booklet doesn't indicate whether they participate in the tutti. However, most important is a strong element of stylistic coherence between the participants; that is certainly the case here. All the soloists are outstanding, and their voices blend perfectly in the concertos. The Choeur de Chambre de Namur is one of the best of its kind, and proves once again its mastery of the style of Monteverdi's time. The Cappella Mediterranea gives an excellent account of the instrumental parts. The ornamentation in the Ave maris stella is particularly beautiful.

In short, whatever one may think of some decisions taken here, this recording of Monteverdi's masterpiece is not to be missed.

Johan van Veen