Monteverdi: The Other Vespers

Monteverdi: The Other Vespers
I Fagiolini, The English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble, The 24, Robert Hollingworth
Decca 4831654. 80’23

During this 450th Monteverdi anniversary year there will be many performances and recordings of the 1610 Vespers. But for this ‘not the 1610’ recording, I Fagiolini have reconstructed a Vespers service inspired by a Dutch tourist’s 1620 record of hearing Monteverdi direct a Vespers on the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist. The psalms and the plainchant on this recording are from that feast, using music by Monteverdi and his contemporaries. The Monteverdi contribution comes from his Selva morale e spirituale, published in 1641, but containing music written much earlier. Whereas the 1610 Vespers are intended for feasts of the Virgin or other female saints, the 1641 collection contains psalms for feasts of male saints.

Following the Introit (Viadana’s four-choir Deus in adiutorium), the five Vespers Psalms are introduced by a plainchant Antiphon and followed either by a repeat of the Antiphon, or a vocal or instrumental piece. The latter include one of Castello’s fanciful Sonatas (played by Bjarte Eike, violin) and a Frescobaldi organ Toccata, played particularly effectively by Catherine Pierron. The Hymn is Monteverdi’s Ut queant laxis and the Magnificat is by Giovanni Gabrieli, a glorious 14-part piece for double choir. The concluding gentle Salve, o Regina is a lesser-known piece from Monteverdi for the simplest of forces, tenor Matthew Long and Lynda Sayce, chitarrone.

The nine singers of I Fagiolini sing with a commendable balance of control, power and emotion. Whatever its specific genre, Monteverdi’s vocal music is never far from the madrigal, where intonation and stability of singing is vital to avoid causing havoc to the harmonic intensity. So it is particularly noteworthy that I Fagiolini’s singers rein in their vibrato, singing with a purity of tone, combined with clear articulation in Monteverdi’s wilder moments.  The key vocal soloists are the high tenors Nicholas Mulroy and Hugo Hymas, and mezzos Clare Wilkinson and Clara Hendrick. The choir is reinforced in two pieces by eight singers from The 24, a student vocal group from the University of York.

The English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble provide a rich tapestry of colour, collectively and individually, the latter notably from cornettists Gawain Glenton and Andrea Inghisciano. Their elaborate divisions and elaborations are a key feature of this recording, as evidenced by the very first piece with its wild cornett flourishes and later by an adaptation of Palestrina’s Ave verum Corpus to include ornamental flourishes played on the delicate sound of a mute cornett. The continuo groups includes organ, two chitarrone, lute and dulcian.

There are several interesting aspects of performance practice that are discussed by director Robert Hollingworth on the I Fagiolini website here. These include voice types (here using mezzos for the top line, and high tenor, rather than countertenors, for the alto line), the related issue of pitch (here at A=440), and instrumental doubling of voice parts (here used only for moments of particular emphasis, and for bass reinforcements). All these make sense, but, for me, one of the most important aspects of this recording is what I consider to be the correct interpretation of the frequents shifts from duple to triple time. For those used to the usually heard scurrying triple-time sections, the slower pace might take some getting used to, but the complex arguments in favour of a slower speed are strong. And, perhaps more importantly, it makes musical sense.

More information about the recording, with links to a multitude of information and videos, can be found here.


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