Monteverdi Vespro della Beate Vergine

Long-awaited and demanding to be heard – however you like your Vespers

Author: 
Fabrice Fitch

Monteverdi Vespro della Beate Vergine

  • Vespro della Beata Vergine, 'Vespers'

Rinaldo Alessandrini has waited long before committing to disc his thoughts on Monteverdi’s most famous sacred publication. On the issues that have divided modern performers he is unflappably pragmatic. In keeping with Concerto Italiano’s general approach, the vocal lines in ‘choral’ pieces are taken by soloists who step out of the ensemble, on the grounds, he says in the notes, that ‘we possess no sources attesting choral performance of this music’. (He is not the first conductor to do so: Philip Pickett chose the same path more than 10 years ago.)

Alessandrini sticks to the published order, observing that no single liturgical event can account for the presence of every piece in the collection (he regards the title as indicating the collection’s generic appropriateness to a variety of Marian vespers contexts). Finally, he transposes the Lauda Jerusalem and the Magnificat on the grounds that failure to do so would entail enlarging the overall ensemble. This is not the place to debate the merits of each of these decisions, which continue to divide scholars. Suffice it to say that a clear vision results which has the virtue of coherence, though it comes at the cost of dramatic effects that many continue to hold dear.

A ‘Minimalist’ vespers, then? Yes and no. Gone are the Cecil B DeMille blockbuster effects (the choral eruption in the Audi, caelum, for instance, or the electrifying opening of the Magnificat. But those who regard such effects as slightly portentous (I include myself) would respond that the music doesn’t need a later-Baroque ripieno conception for such moments to send a chill down the spine. The build-up at Magnificat starts here with the nakedness of a single voice, just as moving in its way. More generally, the notion that this iconic work wasn’t conceived on the grand scale in which some performers dress it up in no way diminishes the greatness of the music.

Other details of execution aren’t quite so persuasive. In some of the later psalms, rhythmic detail tends to get lost in the overall sound. Whether or not this is due to acoustic or other recording variables, it lessens one’s appreciation of Monteverdi’s contrapuntal virtuosity, and gives a certain ‘floaty’ quality (just before the doxology of Lauda Jerusalem, or in much of Nisi Dominus) that can be distracting. Not for Alessandrini the pinpoint precision and analytical clarity of, say, the Monteverdi Choir – and fair enough; but on occasion, a clearer rhythmic purpose wouldn’t have gone amiss.

I was also less than convinced by Furio Zanasi’s Nigra sum, which sounds uncertain, and sometimes falls short in tuning. Among the men, the soloists in Audi coelum are, dramatically, far surer of themselves; and among the women, Monica Piccinini and Roberta Invernizzi deliver a Pulchra es every bit as sensuous as one could hope for. Alessandrini’s instruments give wonderfully punchy accounts of the Sonata, and the sackbuts and continuo come wonderfully close to impersonating a percussion section at times. The latter, incidentally, are more a presence in their own right than on any other recording I can recall.

My reservations, then, are largely local in nature; but I can well imagine that others, whose conception of the work is more fixed than mine, may fail to be convinced. Put mischievously, there is something here to displease nearly everyone – not that Alessandrini would mind: his notes show him to be in typically combative mood. But there are many moments that will return you to the music more violently; and what so distinguished a Monteverdian has to say must be taken seriously.

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