Dunedin: Vespers 1610

Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine
Dunedin Consort, His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts, John Butt
Linn Records. CKD 569. 2CDs 94′

During this 450th anniversary year of Monteverdi’s birth, there have been a plethora of performances and recordings of his 1610 Vespro della Beata Vergine. It’s not an easy work to address, not least because of the many complex musicological and performance issues that surround it.

The first point of call for anybody remotely interested in such things is to read the programme notes. The second is to glance at the track list. If it has more than 12 separate items, then it is probably placed in a quasi-liturgical, and almost certainly spurious, setting, with additional plainchant and instrumental pieces intended to represent how it might if it were performed liturgical. But it is most unlikely ever to have been thus performed.  Scholarship changes almost daily, but it seems likely that this is Monteverdi showing what he is capable of, exploring differing style of music on the cusp of the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque (the prima pratica to the seconda praticca), and possibly (rather like Bach’s B Minor Mass) as a calling card; in Monteverdi’s case, for potential posts in Venice and Rome. 

The pieces contained in the 1610 publication are not in an order that would have been used in any known service, and the inclusion of two versions of the conclude Magnificat suggest that a pick-and-mix approach is at least appropriate, and possibly Monteverdi’s intention. Although written in Mantua, there is no record of it ever having been performed there, or indeed anywhere else, at the time. So that is the challenge to present day musicians, and it is one that John Butt, the distinguished Bach scholar, accepts and deals with magnificently.

John Butt has sensibly chosen the simplest approach to the choice of pieces, ordering them as published, without any additional quasi-liturgical shenanigans, finishing with the larger of the two Magnificats, and performing with the simplest of forces (it needs a minimum of 10 singers, which is exactly what it gets), all recorded in a clear acoustic. That puts the focus on the music itself. And what music!

The chosen ten singers, several having substantial solo roles, are some of the finest around. The outstanding singing of the two sopranos, Joanna Lunn and Esther Brazil, and tenor Nicholas Mulroy are immediately to the fore in the opening few sections, notably in the Dixit Dominus, Nigra Sum, and Puchra es. Occasionally there is a little too much vibrato from a few of the tenors for my liking and for the clarity of the distinctive ornamentation of the period, but I accept that is as much a matter of personal taste as it is of period performance practice. The tutti chorus are magnificent.

The Dunedin instrumentalists are led by violinist Cecilia Bernardini, with notable contributions from her and fellow violinist Huw Daniel, theorbo player Elizabeth Kenny and Stephen Farr playing harpsichord and a digital version of the Venetian style organ originally built in Izola, Slovenia, but now in St Maria d’Alieto. Although this organ dates from the 18th century, its style is not entirely inappropriate for Monteverdi, although I do wonder why the much more appropriate virtual Antegnati organ in St. Carlo, Brescia (available from the same virtual organ company) dating from Monteverdi’s time and far closer to Mantua, wasn’t chosen.  His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts must have had a busy year, the distinctive sounds of the three cornetts and three sagbutts adding considerably to the Monteverdian sound world. John Butt plays a small chamber organ.

As for the programme notes, John Butt’s detailed description of the directorial choices are well argued. I am particularly in favour of his analysis of the speed relationships between duple and triple time sections, the latter being, quite correctly, in my view, performed at a slower pace than has become the norm for many years. This is a practice that is only slowly catching on, but it makes an enormous difference to the mood of many of the Vespers pieces, making sound far less frenetic.

A landmark recording, with the usual excellent Linn production, that will surely become the standard by which future interpretations will be judged.



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