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Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
Vespro della Beata Vergine
Cantar Lontano/Marco Mencoboni
rec. live, 3 & 4 December 2009, Basilica Palatina di Santa Barbara, Mantua, Italy
Texts included (without translations)
Reviewed in CD stereo
PAN CLASSICS PC10371 [2 SACDs: 89:07]

The Vespro della Beata Vergine by Claudio Monteverdi is one of the great monuments in music history. Its status is comparable to that of Bach's Mass in B minor, Handel's Messiah and Mozart's Requiem. That is reflected by the number of recordings in the catalogue. This year (2017) the music world commemorates his 550th birthday, and it was inevitable that more recordings of the Vespers would be released. Pan Classics turned to a live performance from 2009 which had never made it to disc. Whereas sometimes one asks whether another recording of such a piece was necessary as the interpretation has nothing really new to offer, the present recording under the direction of Marco Mencoboni has various notable features which makes it stand out from the crowd.

The first is the fact that the Vespers are performed as part of a liturgical framework. In addition to the psalms, the concertos and the Magnificat from Monteverdi's pen, here every psalm is preceded by an antiphon in plainchant, before and after the Magnificat we hear Beata es Virgo Maria as an antiphona ad Magnificat, and the performance closes with the Oratio and the verso Benedicamus Domino. Liturgical performances are not unique, but in recent times most performers have preferred to perform only the pieces composed by Monteverdi. The main reason is that any liturgical reconstruction has to be rather speculative, as we don't know for sure for which feast Monteverdi may have intended his Vespers. There is even much doubt whether this work was conceived as a unity. It is quite possible that it was put together as a collection of Vesper music, from which maestri di cappella could select what they needed.

A second notable feature is the choice of tempi. In his liner-notes Marco Mencoboni argues that it has become a habit to treat the tempi in this work with considerable freedom. "In preparing the actual performance, we based it on the fixity of time or beat, taking for granted that - apart from the changes of time expressly written by Monteverdi - the beat, as it was usual at the time, wouldn't change from the beginning to the end of the piece". He points out that Dario Castello, in his first book of Sonate concertate of 1621, was the first to use tempo indications as adagio and allegro. "Applying this kind of approach before 1610 risks being an anachronism. In the Vespers we never find indications like Adagio or Allegro in the hand of Monteverdi: the pen of the composer uses the duration of the notes to fulfil his aim". In the performances we then hear pretty large differences of tempo. If Mencoboni indeed follows strictly what Monteverdi has written down - which I can't check as I don't have access to the score - we have to conclude that the composer required very strong contrasts in tempo.

However, that causes considerable problems in a large acoustic. That brings me to the third feature of this recording. It took place in the basilica Santa Barbara, which was part of the palace of the Gonzaga's. This allows the use of the large organ at the gallery, an instrument built by Antegnati in 1565. However, the acoustic is such that it is very complicated, often even impossible, to keep the musical discourse clear enough to follow the text and to prevent the various sounds overlapping each other. That is exactly what happens here. Nisi Dominus, for instance, is a pretty big mess; all the sounds of voices and instruments are mixed up. The spatial acoustic also results in the strings sounding from a far distance. This may be less of a problem, if you listen to this disc in surround stereo (I listened on a conventional CD-player), but it seems unlikely that it solves all the acoustical problems that I noticed.

The fourth feature is the prominent part of the instruments. In a number of cases Monteverdi indicates the use of instruments, but performers often feel free to add instruments, for instance playing colla voce in the psalms. In this recording the instruments, and especially the sackbuts, play a major role, and sometimes tend to overshadow the voices, again partly due to the acoustical circumstances.

I am a little in two minds about this performance. There are several aspects which are I really like. One of them is the singing: Mencoboni had some excellent singers at his disposal, and their performances are mostly very good. However, it is a bit disappointing that in the concertos for solo voices there is too little ornamentation, whereas in contrast the instruments add lots of it in the Magnificat. I would prefer less there and more in the concertos. The use of a large organ is definitely a bonus, certainly when the organ is as beautiful as the one in Mantua. The acoustic has a good effect in that it allows the instruments, which are played very well, to blossom, but as I have already said, it is too large to handle the very fast speeds in some of the psalms. The plainchant is nicely sung, but mostly rather slow. Something I definitely don't like - and don't understand - is that in some cases the psalm starts before the last note of the plainchant has been sung. I find that very odd.

Adding to my points of criticism, I am not convinced about Mencoboni's views on tempo. These seem rather speculative, and this is an aspect which deserves more investigation. In his liner-notes Mencoboni also deals with some aspects of text expression. He states that "a few cues could let us suppose that the composer might have looked more at the original Hebrew texts than at the Latin translations, not always precise, produced by the Catholic Church." However, later he admits that we don't know at all if Monteverdi knew Hebrew. This is just another example of speculation, which makes little sense. The same, one could say, goes for his insistence to record the Vespers in this particular basilica. Obviously, its organ is a major attraction, but he at least suggests that here the Vespers may have been performed. However, there is no evidence of any performance in Monteverdi's time, neither here nor in Venice. We even don't know whether it has ever been performed in its entirety, as I indicated above in regard to the question whether this work was conceived as a liturgical unity.

There are many recordings of Monteverdi's Vespers to choose from. Mencoboni's performance is not my first choice by any means; there are just too many inconsistencies, pieces of guess-work and shortcomings, especially in regard to acoustic. However, if you have several recordings in your collection and have a special interest in Monteverdi and/or his Vespers, you may consider adding this recording. It is certainly not just one voice in the crowd, and in several aspects it has something to offer which is at least interesting and thought-provoking. The beautiful Antegnati organ is not the least argument in favour of this recording.

Johan van Veen


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