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Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610)
Lea Desandre (soprano), Eva ZaÔcik (soprano), Lucile Richardot (alto), Emiliano Gonzalez Toro (tenor), Zachary Wilder (tenor), Olivier Coiffet (tenor), Nicolas Brooymans (bass), Renaud Bres (bass), Goeffroy BoufiŤrre (bass)
Ensemble Pygmalion/RaphaŽl Pichon
rec. live, February 2019, Royal Chapel of Versailles
Bertrand Couderc, Lighting Director. French, German and English booklet and subtitles
All Regions. Sound; Stereo 2.0 and Dolby 5.1 Surround
Reviewed in surround sound

Monteverdi’s Vespers is a work that has perplexed scholars and performers, who continue to make arguments for and against different practices in presenting and recording it. RaphaŽl Pichon’s choices of pitch, vocal and instrumental forces and text are probably close to an international norm these days for an historically informed performance (though the booklet has nothing to say about those various options and decisions). He follows the usual full text in the order of the 1610 publication, no wholesale resequencing to reflect liturgical practice of the day as in McCreesh’s audio recording. Pichon repeats the opening Introit and Toccata to end this performance, perhaps so that we imagine the Duke of Mantua or Doge of Venice exiting to a fanfare as he had entered to one. For most of us the great Magnificat and especially its Gloria Patri make a spectacular enough close .

Antiphon chants are included, and there is a choir of thirty-six singers. At nearly two hours it is at the long end of the range of recordings – Christina Pluhar on Virgin in 2011 fitted her excellent account onto one 75 minute CD. The length of this Pygmalion version, partly due to the live occasion requiring pauses between movements occasioned by the need for singers to move around the building, ascending to galleries then returning to the platform as needed. This might encourage selecting movements rather than viewing the complete work, but that would be quite legitimate, given the doubts over in what sense the publication was ever intended as an integrated single “work”.

Pygmalion is an outstanding group of singers and instrumentalists, on a par with any around on this evidence. The choristers are well-balanced both within and between sections, as can be heard in the Hymn Ave maris stella, and there are enough of them to make a good sonic impact when needed, as in the opening of Lauda Jersualem, which is deftly sung. The instrumentalists have all the skill needed for the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria, in which the string playing is especially delightful.

The team of soloists is very fine, whether singing individually or in ensemble. They are mostly lighter voices suitable for such repertoire, skilled in the vocal manners expected of 17th century Italian singers. The two sopranos Desandre and ZaÔcik duet exquisitely in Pulchra es, as do the two tenors Toro and Wilder in Laudate Pueri, and again when joined by Coiffet for the three-tenor depiction of the Trinity in Duo Seraphim. Emiliano Gonzalez Toro is a spectacular singer (as we heard on the Pluhar CD), his echo in Audi Coelum ideally balanced. He and Zachary Wilder are both superb in the thrilling Gloria Patri. The direction from RaphaŽl Pichon takes good care over dynamics and is especially attentive to the rhythmic life of the performance.

All this is expertly filmed and edited, with little to distract from the progress of the work or the focus on what is being heard at any moment. It is perhaps unusual for the lighting director to receive as prominent a credit as he does here, but you soon see why. Bertrand Coudec has much experience lighting operas, and he dramatizes the Vespers by often darkening the main body of instrumentalists and choir and lighting only a soloist in a gallery, then returning to a full glare on the orchestra and choir as the musical focus returns to them. This play of light and shade is never too fussy but often dramatic, and it must be said that much of the Vespers is thus made theatrical – which in many ways it is, and the composer of course is not averse to bringing aspects of his theatre music to his score, not least in the opening fanfare derived from his opera Orfeo. It almost feels like a private performance for the viewer, since there is no sight or sound of an audience at all, until after the work has finished.

There are no extras on this DVD, and booklet has nothing on the intriguing and important background to the work at all, or any text and translations, but the translated text (apart from the antiphons) is shown on the subtitles of course. The booklet does have descriptions of each movement by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, presumably from his own DVD made live in 2014 in the same royal chapel at Versailles. That Gardiner DVD, with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists on Alpha, is in fact the obvious rival. I have not seen it but it was a MusicWeb Recording of the Month, very much admired by JQ (review). But this newcomer can also be highly recommended. Pichon directs with great authority, and the magnificent performance has an aural and visual impact that is strongly atmospheric.

Roy Westbrook

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