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Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610)
Silvia Frigato and Emanuele Galli (sopranos), Raffaele Pé (alto), Krystian Adam, Nicholas Mulroy and Gareth Treseder (tenors), Alex Ashworth and Robert Davies (basses),
Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, Les Pages du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. live, March 2014, La Chapelle Royale de Versailles
Latin texts and English and French translations included
Sound Formats: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Stereo/Dolby Digital 5.1/Binaural Sound;
Picture Format: 16:9; Region Code: worldwide; Resolution: 1080i High Definition
ALPHA 705 DVD/Blu-ray [105:00]

On 5 March 1964 a young Cambridge undergraduate conducted a choir and orchestra that he had painstakingly assembled and rehearsed for the purpose in a performance of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers. That concert, given in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, was the springboard for the extraordinary career of John Eliot Gardiner, as he then was. Fifty years later to the day, on 5 March 2014, Sir John Eliot Gardiner was back in the same venue to conduct his Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists in another performance of the Vespers. I remember listening to and enjoying very much the live broadcast on BBC Radio 3. On that occasion, pleasingly, today’s Monteverdi Choir was augmented by a few of the singers that took part in that 1964 performance. A few days later Gardiner took his singers and players across the Channel to Versailles to give the performance preserved here. The veteran singers weren’t involved in the Versailles performance and the choristers of the King’s College Chapel choir were replaced by Les Pages du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles. Though it’s not clearly stated in the otherwise pretty comprehensive documentation I believe this performance was filmed on 9 March 2014.

The booklet reproduces an extensive essay that Sir John wrote for the March 2014 Cambridge performance. It’s quite salutary to read it for Gardiner makes clear what a ground-breaking event his 1964 performance was. As he points out, performances of the Vespers were then rare and in order to realise his vision he had to create a performing edition of the score. Next he had to assemble a choir of singers for most of whom singing Monteverdi’s music was a new experience. On top of all that, he had to recruit an orchestra, a task which included “scouring the country to find the only three [musicians] capable of playing that treacherously difficult instrument – the cornetto – with very mixed results, as it turned out.” It’s an indication of the size of the task confronting Gardiner that his Cambridge tutor was sufficiently enlightened to give him a year off his course in order to plan and execute the performance. In passing, it’s well-nigh impossible to imagine a student being given that latitude today, especially as Gardiner wasn’t even reading music; his subject was history.

To say that a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since March 1964 would be a massive understatement. The Monteverdi Choir has evolved into one of the crack professional choirs in the world. I think I’m right in saying that the 1964 performance was given by a band that mixed modern and period instruments; today’s English Baroque Soloists is a world-renowned period instrument ensemble. Gardiner himself has become one of the world’s leading conductors with a repertoire that extends from Renaissance repertoire to twentieth-century music. Last, but by no means least, Monteverdi’s music has become a fixture in the concert repertoire.

Part of the proof of the extent to which Monteverdi’s music has become mainstream lies in the large number of recordings of the Vespers that have been made in the last 52 years. Two of these are by Gardiner himself. He first recorded the work in 1974 for Decca (443 482-2). That recording, I believe, was made with a mix of modern and period instruments – the players comprised the Monteverdi Orchestra, the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble and the David Munrow Recorder Ensemble. In May 1989, to mark the 25th anniversary of the Monteverdi Choir, Gardiner set the work down again, this time in St Mark’s Basilica, Venice and with an exclusively period instrument orchestra (DH Archiv 429 565-2). That recording also came out on a DG DVD in 2003 – I’m sure I recall seeing the film, entitled Vespers in Venice, on BBC Television.

One thing that distinguishes Gardiner’s latest recording is that he used external soloists on his first two recordings. So, for example, we find singers like Felicity Palmer, James Bowman, Robert Tear, Philip Langridge and John Shirley-Quirk on the 1974 set while the 1989 version includes such luminaries as Michael Chance, Nigel Robson and Bryn Terfel. For this latest recording Gardiner follows the precedent he’s set in some of his other recent recordings by drawing his soloists from the ranks of the chorus, though I’m not sure if all of the soloists are regulars with the Monteverdi Choir.

It may be that some will object that in this performance the chorus, and the sopranos in particular, are too obviously Anglo-Saxon in sound. It’s true that the sopranos of the Monteverdi Choir don’t offer an open-throated, Italianate sound though I can’t say that bothered me unduly; they sing extremely well. However, it’s not an accusation that could be levelled at Gardiner’s two soprano soloists. In his booklet essay Gardiner invites us to consider the Vespers as “the sacred twin to Monteverdi’s first opera L’Orfeo”. That thought colours his approach to the work as a whole but it certainly applies to Silvia Frigato and Emanuele Galli who, with their conductor’s evident encouragement, sing their solos in a dramatic, operatic fashion – though without ever going over the top. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Pulchra es. Here the ladies offer sensuous and very feminine singing. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that Miss Frigato in particular gives an overtly secular performance of music that is decidedly free of any liturgical stuffiness. I loved it. Indeed, I relished all of the soprano solos.

The tenors are just as admirable. The tenor who sings Nigra sum gives a very fine, impassioned account of the florid music. I think that’s Nicholas Mulroy and throughout the Vespers this singer’s contributions are excitingly open-throated and very stylish but the achievement of the tenor who sings Audi coelum is even finer. I believe this is the work of the Polish tenor, Krystian Adam who gives a magnificent, intense account of the solo. This is a theatrical piece of singing – and rightly so. It’s also very daring. I’m fairly sure it’s Mulroy who sings the echo phrases from a position in the gallery about half-way down the nave. I’m sorry about this lack of precision on my part but, maddeningly, nowhere are we told which singer sings any particular solo; I’ve had to do some detective work on the internet and I hope that in this case and others I’ve credited the soloists correctly.

At several points during the performance very intelligent use is made of the spaces of the Versailles chapel and, in particular of its galleries. All three tenors, and their accompanying chitarrones, are despatched to the gallery at the rear of the nave to sing Duo Seraphim. The result, with the music echoing around, is mesmerising. If ever there was a case for surround sound – for which, sadly, I’m not equipped – this is it, but the impact is still pretty strong in good old, plain vanilla stereo. The choir and orchestra are positioned on the sanctuary steps. There’s a gallery right behind and above the sanctuary. From here, right at the start, one of the bass soloists declaims the opening phrase, ‘Deus in adjutorium meum intende’. As an aside, it’s interesting that Gardiner here uses a bass; on his two previous recordings a tenor did the honours. Later, the boys and girls of Les Pages du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles are crammed into this gallery space – it looks quite small. From here they sing the cantus firmus in Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis and they also take part in the hymn, Ave maris stella and the Magnificat. They sing confidently and firmly. Near the start of the Magnificat one of the young girls – I’d guess she’s aged about 13 – has a little solo which she delivers very nicely. I was delighted to see Gardiner single her out for a special bow at the end; she takes her applause with charming shyness.

The choral forces number 30 (11/6/6/7), including the soloists. Their singing is absolutely splendid throughout, right from the joyful opening invocation from Psalm 69. Dixit Dominus impresses through the animation of the singing – and playing. Here is another instance where the two soprano soloists and the vibrant tenor of Nicholas Mulroy make telling contributions. In Laudate pueri passages of exciting and rhythmically vital choral singing alternate with warm sensuous passages. There’s terrific attack in Lauda Jerusalem Dominum. Arguably, though, the choir reserves its most virtuoso efforts for the Magnificat. Gardiner leads a performance of this, the longest movement in the work, that’s full of imagination, colour and flair. Monteverdi breaks the canticle down into a number of short sections, some involving soloists and all of them very different from each other. Thus, on this occasion the performance of the Magnificat offers a microcosm of the way in which singers and instrumentalists are alive throughout the work to the infinite variety of Monteverdi’s music.

The instrumentalists play a key role in realising Gardiner’s vision of the piece. Throughout the playing is stylish and lively – I relished, for example, the sprightly playing in Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis, not least on the part of the cornettists; clearly there are no issues here, as it seems there were back in 1964.

Drawing everything together and inspiring everyone is Gardiner himself. He visibly lives and breathes every word, every musical phrase, with his singers and players. It’s crystal clear that his appetite for the Vespers has in no way diminished over the years; the score holds as much fascination for him as it did back in 1964. What I noticed above all, though, is his palpable sense of delight in Monteverdi’s music. You can tell that he knows he has a group of musicians who are able to bring Monteverdi’s masterpiece thrillingly to life and he’s loving every moment of it. He describes the Vespers as a “sonic chiaroscuro”. The way he brings out the vibrant colours and all the subtle tints that Monteverdi deployed from his rich palette of musical colours is nothing short of masterly. I have no hesitation in saying that as a performance this is the finest of Gardiner’s three recordings of the Vespers.

I suppose it would have been particularly fitting if Gardiner and his team had been filmed in the Chapel of King’s College, where Gardiner’s musical journey may be said to have begun. However, La Chapelle Royale de Versailles provides instead a sumptuous setting which is entirely appropriate for Monteverdi’s sumptuous music. As I’ve already said, intelligent use is made of the spatial possibilities of the building and the church has been atmospherically lit for the occasion. The camerawork is ideal. The director knows just when to cut away to a shot of the chapel, giving us the chance to admire its splendours. However, for the most part the cameras focus on the performers and they do so in an expert fashion so that we get drawn into the performance.

The package comprises a DVD and a Blu-ray. The DVD sound and picture quality are both very good but, as you’d expect, there’s a greater degree of sharpness on the Blu-ray. The sound quality was very good when I played the Blu-ray through my TV – the instrumental bass is satisfyingly firm. When I played the Blu-ray as an audio disc through my hi-fi system the sound quality was very high indeed. All my listening was done using the 2.0 Stereo option.

Watching and listening to this celebratory performance of the Monteverdi Vespers has been a thrilling experience. Within two or three minutes of the start I was completely hooked and I found myself drawn into the performance and into the music to an even greater extent than I had expected. Over the years I’ve enjoyed and learned from Gardiner’s two earlier recordings and both still have much to offer. For instance, in the 1974 performance the two sopranos, Jill Gomez and Felicity Palmer, sing delightfully and I admire also the contributions of tenors Robert Tear and Philip Langridge, the latter especially. Fast forward to 1989 and Venice and there’s an undoubted thrill from hearing Gardiner direct the music in St Mark’s basilica. Indeed the building itself makes a contribution; there’s magical distancing and reverberation in Duo Seraphim, for instance. However, the venue also has its drawbacks; it seems to me that the instrumentalists are balanced rather closely, presumably in deference to the resonant acoustic of the basilica. The acoustic of La Chapelle Royale de Versailles, while resonant, is somewhat tighter than that of the Venetian church and it seems to me that the engineers have balanced everything most skilfully – and musically. Though the playing and singing, both solo and choral, is excellent on both of Gardiner’s previous recordings this, his latest version, is the best of the lot. So even if you have either of the earlier recordings this new one represents a highly desirable “duplication”.

The extensive essay in the booklet is by Gardiner and is full of interesting and insightful comment both about the work itself and about his history with it. This is obviously the note that he wrote for the anniversary performance in Cambridge rather than one that relates directly to this Versailles concert. However, it’s nice to have the Cambridge note, which is of special relevance to the anniversary.

This is a superb and thrilling performance of the Vespers and an ideal way to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the remarkable careers of Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir.

John Quinn



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