In recent years the early seventeenth century has become something of a happy hunting ground for liturgical reconstructions of all kinds. Since on the one hand publication often involved the separation of Mass or Vespers movements that may have been originally conceived to go together, while on the other, services (including the Mass) were often made up from the works of different composers (together with plainchant and instrumental music), the scope for experiment is considerable. In this context Paul McCreesh's reconstructions have been recognized for some time as something of a model; rare examples, in an area which sometimes gives rise to fraudulence and sensationalism, of informed scholarship and sensitive musicianship expertly combined. It was precisely these qualities, allied to fine performances from good musicians well-versed in the language of the period, which led to the spectacular success of McCreesh's
Admirers of that earlier record will certainly not be disappointed by this even more ambitious undertaking. Characteristic of both is a fine grasp of the very particular spatial qualities of St Mark's Basilica, the most important church in Venice which, as both state monument and private chapel of the Doge, had its own liturgy, chants (specially transcribed for the present recording) and ceremonies. This is not merely a question of recording in a suitably resonant acoustic (and Brinknash Priory, used on this occasion, is suitably warm in this respect), but more to do with McCreesh's real understanding of the placing and choreography of the participants in the musical aspects of the liturgy. It is now known, for example, that the antiphonal music that is such a feature of the St Mark's repertoire was not performed from the two organ lofts to the east and west of the high altar as used to be thought, but in fact from one or more of a number of possible locations elsewhere in the building. A good part of the effectiveness of McCreesh's Vespers is to do with its sense of drama, achieved through a variety of spatial effects that allow the full range of musical styles to speak clearly and effectively, from solo movements and duets to the magisterial sonority of traditional Venetian polyphony. Some praise and admiration for the sensitivity of the result must also go to the engineers.
This approach is inevitably linked to the crucial question of performing forces. Here too McCreesh has been quite rigorous with the historical evidence in rejecting the larger ensembles still preferred by some interpreters (above all of Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610) in favour of the more intimate groupings that we can be sure Monteverdi knew. At the same time he has retained the essential contrast between solo and tutti sections which is such a feature of the style and which is quite explicitly invoked in Rigatti's music. Among the performers there is a feeling of common enterprise that is hard to describe, but which sets this record apart from so many others where the overall impression is of a sequence of unrelated pieces given in a disjointed series of separate performances. And, above all, there is some glorious singing and playing, so much so that it seems invidious to single out individual performers. Nevertheless, Charles Daniel's reading of Grandi's O intemerata is cleanly-focused and powerfully effective, the soprano soloists (who are often paired) are well-matched in their boyish purity of tone (while Susan Hemington Jones blossoms into an altogether more rhetorical mode in Grandi's O quam tu pulchra es), and the two falsettists, David Hurley and Timothy Wilson, sing with subtlety and delicacy without sacrificing intensity. There is some carefully thought-out and gracefully-shaped instrumental playing, and all the performers apply embellishments and passaggi with great naturalness and conviction. In short, this is an heroic achievement of the highest possible order.'