Monteverdi Vespro della Beata Vergine
Is this the first Monteverdi Vespers recording ever to make it on to one CD? I think it must be, and at 75 minutes in length it has a little room to spare as well. Even though this is a “concert performance” with no liturgical chant additions, it does not take much to guess that there must be some nifty tempi on show here, and so there are; “Dixit Dominus”, for example, is dispatched in what must be a record-breaking 6'32", and not even the hard-driving John Eliot Gardiner (Archiv, 1/91) comes within 40 seconds of that. But though such urgency is by far the most readily remarkable characteristic of this thoroughly modern, thoroughly continental performance – and will perhaps be enough to displease a good number of listeners – the interesting thing is that the pace never feels pushed beyond its natural limit. This is a radical and dynamic Vespers that really works.
It works because it captures so many of this famous work’s glorious strengths anew. No performance can have everything, of course, and lovers of plush and churchy choral sound – even the modern “early music” version of it – may regret its absence in this intimate one-to-a-part account; but when the voices here chime out in the opening “Domine ad adiuvandum”, gatecrash the Marian musings of “Audi coelum” or build to a climax at the end of “Laetatus sum”, there is no lack of crisp splendour, especially when the cornetts superimpose their dizzy decorations. Nor is there any want of textural (or textual) coherence; recorded in the Metz Arsenal, the sound is clear and immediate, with every voice and every instrument audible. Christina Pluhar says her quick tempi aim to lend greater importance to the work’s virtuoso aspect while allowing the chant canti firmi to generate their own sense of line, and both ambitions are wonderfully achieved here, with a sense of dancing energy as a delicious bonus. And if it is the technical precision and joyful élan of the band that often commands the attention (the winds are dazzling in their strength and brilliance), the singing mixes thrilling instrumental incisiveness with real ardency and pliability.
Last year I listened to over 30 Vespers for The Gramophone Collection (6/10), and this one joins those by Philip Pickett and Rinaldo Alessandrini at the top of the class of colourful versions using solo voices. Few in any category have been more exciting, however, or made my blood course more keenly.