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Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
Selva Morale e Spirituale (Venice 1640-1641)
La Venexiana/Claudio Cavina
Schola Gregoriana
rec. live, March 2005, Church of St. Miguel, Cuenca, Spain,
GLOSSA GCD920943 [3 CDs: 208:24]

There were two major publications of Monteverdi’s sacred works: the Vespers of 1610, and the larger collection, Selva Morale e Spirituale of 1640-1641, published in Venice. The latter contains music in the new ‘seconda prattica’ and in the old ‘prima prattica’. For example, the Mass for four voices on the third disc contrasts the four-part Kyrie with the seven-part Gloria in the modern, more concertante style. This archaic mass can indeed often end movements on chords without a third, as in the Benedictus.

The collection can be recorded in various ways. La Venexiana has chosen to couch each disc as an hour-long liturgical reconstruction. Monteverdi’s music is therefore surrounded by suitable plainchant. The set is a reissue of a 2005 recording.

Disc 1 contains a Vespers for the Feast of the Archangel Gabriel, normally held on March 18th. The plainsongs recall the angel’s visit to the Virgin Mary, the Annunciation. That feast day is March 25th.

On disc 2 there is a Vespers for San Giuseppe. I found myself a little confused. I assume that we are dealing with St. John the Evangelist, whose feast day is December 27th. That would explain the further Christmas plainchants concerning the Archangel Gabriel. There are, however, references in these chants to Gabriel’s visits to St. Joseph, whose feast day is March 19th. There also are texts which tell Joseph’s story from the biblical narratives. Both reconstructions end with a Magnificat, the text given to the Virgin Mary after the visitation by the Archangel, and then with Salve Regina, another prayer associated with the Virgin, often sung at the end of the monastic day.

Disc 3 presents a Missa Solemnis. It tidies up the remaining settings, including the four-part Mass (Kyrie, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei) and its fabulous seven-part Gloria. It is useful that Monteverdi set some of the texts at least twice, for example Dixit Dominus, which is Psalm 109. It is very interesting to hear the new Monteverdi, as it were, of the Confitebor tibi alongside the older-style Mass cycle.

The original publication has these settings together. For example, the Confitebor Tibi motet comes in three consecutive versions, followed by the two Beatus Vir. This leaves, therefore, modern performers to decide in which order to present or to record the music. Some are contrafacta of secular pieces. That is the case with the Confitebor Terzo alla francese on disc 3; it appears as ‘Chi vole haver felice’ in the Eighth Book of Madrigals (1638). More excitingly, the famous Lamento d’Arianna, from the same book, becomes the Pianto della Madonna appearing at the very end of the third disc.

La Venexiana are much supplemented for this recording. Cavina has gathered eight soloists and a further six singers called the ripieni. There are ten instrumentalists, including four trombones, and the four male voices of the Schola Gregoriana to perform the chants.

I can only compare this version [LV] with a completely contrasting one by Cantus Cölln [CC] under Konrad Junghänel on Harmonia Mundi 901718.20 (there also is a highly recommended 2012 version by the Sixteen on Coro 16101). I will explain why I prefer CC. Feel free to ignore the next three paragraphs if you fancy a reconstruction of Monteverdi’s collection as plausible liturgy: LV is the only choice.

LV get off to a very impressive start on disc 1 with the second setting of Dixit Dominus. This introduces us to some fine soloists, who appear throughout the disc. I also like their version of the better known Beatus Vir. However, as much as wanted to be impressed, the more I compared LV with CC, the less excited (and even interested) I became. It is all to do with pitch, tempi, and the resulting lightness of tone. Let me give examples.

The antiphonal Laudate Dominum in sanctis eius features a soprano, whereas CC has a light-tenor soloist, and a preferable quicker tempo. The Magnificat Secondo also finds CC at a higher pitch, lighter in texture, and again the music moves faster. The Mass is at a lower pitch, so LV use male voices; CC are a minor 3rd up, and use mixed voices. Likewise the Salve Regina for two voices: LV use two sopranos. CC have two tenors, who also seem to be much more passionately involved in presenting the text. That LV seem less involved is also heard in the three-part Confitebor tibi, while CC is much more dance-like. I find LV just dull in the Dixit Dominus Primo.

LV is not helped by a more distant acoustic of the vast church in Cuenca. CC makes the listener more involved, and there is a superior, more immediate stereo spacing. I could go on…

Glossa’s booklet has a detailed essay by Stefano Russomanno. It goes through each of the pieces in turn, including their background. All texts are clearly given and well translated.

Gary Higginson

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