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Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610)
La Compagnia del Madrigale
Cantica Symphonice
La Pifarescha/Giuseppe Maletto
rec. Basilica di San Maurizio, Pinerolo, Italy, 2016
GLOSSA GCD922807 [64:58 + 58:46]

My first encounter with Monteverdi occurred while I was a final year student studying History.  I was doing a course on Renaissance Venice, and our tutor suggested we look at some Venetian cultural artefacts to give us a wider understanding beyond La Serenissima’s politics.  I think I was the only one in the class who decided to look into some Venetian music, and I came upon a recording of Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers going cheap in HMV (R.I.P.).  It was Andrew Parrott’s stripped down 1984 recording with the Taverner Consort (review), and it was unlike anything I’d ever heard.  For me, up until that moment, music began with Bach, and I simply didn’t know what to make of this strangely beautiful sound world that was unfolding before me.  All I knew was that I wanted more.

For that reason, the Taverner’s recording will always be special to me, and I love the fresh air that blows through all of his textures.  However, Giuseppe Maletto’s recording is the first one I’ve heard in years that has stopped me in my tracks and made me go: “Wow!”  Even accounting for Parrott’s irreplaceability, I think Maletto’s recording is now my new favourite.

The reason for that, and for the “Wow” factor, is that it sticks out a mile in terms of difference of sound.  Maletto’s sound is luxurious and rich where Parrott’s was stripped down and transparent, and I love the multi-layered approach he brings to the texture.  For one thing, this is a Vespers that isn’t afraid to take its time.

You know right where you are with the opening Toccata, which has a wonderful sense of splendour to it.  No stripped-back tendencies here: this is obviously a performance of many performers in a huge (but very well-recorded) space, conducted with magisterial spaciousness by a sympathetic music director.  Some will already bristle at that description, but for me it made the scalp prickle.  Maletto - and, critically, the Glossa engineers - have worked hard to create a sound world to bathe in and to lose yourself in, and I loved it.

This sets the tone for a wonderfully rich reading of the whole set.  The large scale of the performance (and the acoustic) means that the listener can repeatedly plug into the sense of wonder inherent in so much of the music. Yes speeds are, on the whole (but not always), slower, but who cares when the effect is to give you a sound to luxuriate in?

The Dixit Dominus, for example, revels in the sense of dialogue between the soloists or small group and the bigger chorus, and the gorgeous acoustic, together with the beautifully captured sound, makes for a sensual, thrilling experience. It’s not an especially religious one, but it’s very Venetian!  The orchestra’s contribution really helps, of course, especially the piping cornetti and magisterial sackbuts, even crunching through some of the dissonances fearlessly.  This is a sound you just don't get elsewhere in this music, or if you have then I haven’t come across it.

That’s true throughout the choral Psalm settings.  The multiple layers of Laetatus sum sound thrilling, and Nisi Dominus is gloriously rich in sound and texture.  The organ makes a big difference to Laudate pueri while the vocal line is agile and cultured.  Lauda Jerusalem, especially, is underpinned by a marvellously rich bass line which energises and strengthens everything above it and gives everything a gloriously vibrant texture.

However, Maletto’s approach to the work’s structure accentuates the difference between the assertive, diurnal Psalm settings and the more intimate, nocturnal sacri concentus, and here it is the solo vocal performances that thrill.  Nigra sum is gorgeous, sensuous, sinuous, as well it should be.  The tenor soloist here is fantastic, and crops up again and again in the solo numbers; and not until I had finished my first listen-through did I register that it is Giuseppe Maletto himself (the notes don’t specify, but I assume that he and the conductor are one and the same).  Duo seraphim sounds strangely compelling in this company.  Audi coelum has a wonderful call-and-response effect with eerie tenor voices, and the placing of distance works magically.

All the explicitly Marian music is saved for the second disc, launching with a bright, glittering sonata.  The Ave maris stella is like a compendium on its own, with instrumental effects ranging from lutes and strings through to recorders and beyond.  The singing is also lovely here, with an entrancing concertante effect, switching from soloists to small groups to larger choruses.  The two Magnificats are every bit as encyclopaedic.  I loved the wind sounds in the seven-voice Magnificat, which moves from aristocratic splendour through spicy cornets through to high-pitched avian tootling.  The balance of singers and instruments is excellent, too.  Furthermore, the juxtaposition of different styles through which the piece ranges is never a problem, either.  It feels like a coherent whole, at the end of which I felt very satisfied.  The instrumentation is more limited for the six-voice Magnificat, but the drama is not.  Here it's the beautiful, sinuous vocal lines that cast spells before your ears, and the blend of different voices, together with the spatial differentials, is so beautiful as to be almost erotic.

There is a long, scholarly booklet note which explains the performing preferences with admirable clarity and, in fact, honesty, admitting at one point that the choice of pitch is, in fact, “a modern compromise without any historical basis”, but nevertheless explaining why they felt it was the right decision.  Texts and translations are included, too.

That only sets the seal on what is, as I say, the finest, most joy-inducing recording of the Vespers to have come my way in many years.  No doubt there will be others in this Monteverdi year, but if they come close to this one in quality then we can count ourselves very lucky indeed.

Simon Thompson



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