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Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610)
rec. 2017, church of Saint Cybar, Pranzac, France RAMÉE RAM1702 [59:20 + 31:17]
We’re becoming increasingly used to recordings of alternative versions of familiar works: Mozart’s piano concertos with string quartet, reduced-forces or chamber or piano versions of Beethoven’s symphonies and the like, all offering different views, and often throwing up interesting aspects of music we all thought had given up most if not all of its secrets. This recording of Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine is the first of a pragmatic alternative version that does without the concertato instruments, that elaborate fanfare which makes the opening such a spectacular musical statement, and adds grandeur and monumental scale to the work as a whole.
Ludus Modalis doesn’t do entirely without instrumental accompaniment. Renaissance traditions cited in the booklet add a sprinkle of legitimacy to the use of an organ, harpsichords, bass sackbut and cornett as well as a bass viol, but if pragmatism and use of available resources was the flavour of the time then we can rest assured that all kinds of ensembles might at one time or another have been called up for services at St Mark’s in Venice or elsewhere. Monteverdi’s indication in the score shows that ‘Ritornellos may be performed or omitted as desired’ leave open the possibility of a more compact performance with organ alone. The argument is also made that it is possible the instrumental parts might have been added after the vocal music had been composed. The Sonata sopra Sancta Maria has alas had to be omitted but a ricercare by Frescobaldi has been substituted, and while there are little cuts all over the place in general the proportions of the Vespers have been kept relatively intact.
Once you have managed to acclimatise to this new setting for Monteverdi’s Vespers it becomes easy to accept it as authentic and effective in its own right, certainly in an ecclesiastical context. Try to imagine hearing it before you’d ever heard the full-fat version and the music becomes a living thing, filled as ever with staggering inventiveness and wonderful harmonic moments. The singing of Ludus Modalis has to be truly excellent to carry this off, as indeed it is. The forces here are 13 singers in all, but when in full cry there is no shortage of power in their projection. Helped along by those bass instruments there is a richness in this recording that is quite surprising. If you are afraid of getting a disappointingly bare-bones version then you can be reassured that this is still something of a special event. If you have a chance to sample some of this and still need convincing, have a listen to the final Magnificat secondo all the way through. With pin-sharp singing in all voices I still find this an elevating and in places a deeply moving experience. This is admittedly one of the pieces that has more instrumental doubling than a real concertato instrumental role, but I hope you get what I mean.
This will inevitably never be a first choice for the Monteverdi Vespers. You’ll want ‘the works’ from your best recording, and there is no beating that Dixit dominus with full brass and everything else leaping out at you from your speakers. If you really love this work you should however find this an enlightening and enjoyable experience. Full sung texts in Latin, English, German and French are included in the booklet.