Opera + Classical Music Features

Why I Love… The Monteverdi Vespers

Barry Creasy tells us what makes the Vespers so special

Title page of Monteverdi’s 1610 collection

It was the summer of 1980 when I first heard Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespro della Beata Vergine live. It was a performance in a nearby parish church, but they’d hired in some period instruments and a few big-name soloists, including one of the then luminaries of the early music world, Ian Partridge. I’d come across some of Monteverdi’s music before then, and was familiar, from my university singing experiences, with the Venetian polychoral style, but this production, with its large, split choirs, its fascinating instruments, and spatial effects (I recall Partridge singing his ‘Duo Seraphin’ part from a pillar just next to my seat) got me completely hooked on the work.

I say ‘work’, but, of course, one of the great mysteries surrounding this musical collection, pulled together and resurrected from obscurity in the 1950s, is whether it was ever intended to be a complete work at all. What we do know is that Monteverdi travelled to Rome in October 1610 with a newly published collection of some of his works, that included a Mass-setting for six voices, settings of the principal sung movements for the office of Vespers (an introit, five psalms, the hymn ‘Ave Maris Stella’ and a Magnificat) along with “…some sacred songs, suitable for chapels and ducal chambers”, and a spare Magnificat setting. The whole collection was dedicated to Pope Paul V, probably as a palm-greaser to secure a papal bursary for Monteverdi’s son. It is here that the historical trail ends, as we have no contemporaneous record of any performances of the works contained in the collection in either Rome or Venice. We don’t know whether, for example, the ‘sacred songs’ were intended to be included with the vespers – replacing or augmenting the usual plainsong antiphons that bracket psalms – or there to be used separately as anthems or simply pieces for ‘sacred entertainment. While the structures of the Vespers movements are certainly varied (deploying polyphony around a cantus firmus, solo and ripieno singing, polychoral effects, and so on), the musical material for the ‘sacred songs’ is different again, and seems more secular in nature, reflecting Monteverdi’s forays into the developing world of opera.

We can also see that there is some patchiness in the instrumental part-writing. Some of the movements (the psalm ‘Dixit Dominus’, for example, the main Magnificat setting and the ‘Sonata sopra Sancta Maria’) have clear instrumental allocations, although the parts are not always complete. Many of the other movements seem to be simply for voices and continuo – although we will never know whether Monteverdi intended these to include instruments ad lib – a possibility that several performances and recordings exploit.

All of this makes for a plethora of choices when it comes to performance practice, and, across the decades, many of the changes have been rung, giving rise to a delectable variety of performances to listen to – both live and recorded – with each new iteration bringing a fresh interpretation of the work, beyond simply tempo and dynamic.

Other publications have set out detailed comparisons of the various recordings available, so this is merely a personal take on some of the performances that are special to me. I’ll begin with the first recording I acquired, back in the vinyl days: the 1975 recording with Concentus Musicus Wien under Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Jürgen Jürgens. It’s certainly a classic of the early attempts at historically informed performance. There’s a zip to the (authentic) instruments, albeit that the choir is big and a bit woolly. There’s still, I think, a feeling that it should sit on the oratorio shelf, along with the Bach Choir singing Messiah, although Nigel Rogers’ accounts in ‘Nigra sum’, ‘Duo Seraphim’ and ‘Audi coelum’ certainly move us into the territory of specialist period singing.

“…one of the great mysteries surrounding this musical collection… is whether it was ever intended to be a complete work at all”

After Rogers, one of the best tenors I have heard singing the piece live is Raffaele Giordani, whose performance with Vox Luminis and the Freiburg Baroque Consort I reviewed in 2017. Sadly, if you wish to hear Giordani singing the work in a professional recording, you have to turn to the 2017 release by La Compagnia del Madrigale and La Pifarescha under Giuseppe Maletto, whose movements, while observing Monteverdi’s original scoring to the letter, are by and large taken at ponderous speeds, losing so much of the zing from the polychoral movements where phrases are passed around and echoed.

Also following Monteverdi’s scoring – reserving full instrumentation for only the movements that Monteverdi provides parts – is the version released by L’Arpeggiata under Christina Pluhar in 2011. Fans of L’Arpeggiata will know, though, that ‘continuo’ for the group means an opportunity to explore the many textures provided by organ, a variety of plucked instruments and even a cimbalom. And so it is here, such that when the cornetts, sackbuts and strings are absent, the ‘one to a part’ singers are accompanied by a rich variety of instrumental timbres. My favourite moment is the beautifully textured – and some would say gratuitous – chordal transition that separates the two repetitions of ‘et hi tres unum sunt’ in ‘Duo Seraphim’.

Unsurprisingly, there are recordings available from pretty much all of the big names in early music, including two giants in the pantheon, Andrew Parrott (with the Taverner Players and Consort) and John Eliot Gardiner (with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists). Gardiner has actually made two recordings, one from 1975 and another in 1990.

Parrott, in his 1984 recording, sticks to the Monteverdi scoring, and includes, in his usual ‘liturgical recreation’ way all of the plainsong antiphons, as well as some extra material (including the second Magnificat), imagining, perhaps, a ducal performance at St Mark’s Venice. The recording has both grandeur and intimacy about it: Parrott uses his vocal forces with subtlety; it’s not always one to a part, but the differences between full choir and semi-chorus make for nice contrasts in texture.

In his 1990 recording, John Eliot Gardiner goes for broke – doubling chorus psalms with instruments to give us a real full-on Venetian sound. There are a lot of trademark Gardiner performance quirks in this recording that always delight, and, despite the weight of the instrumental doubling, there’s plenty of movement in it; particularly enchanting is ‘Nisi Dominus’, which is taken a fair lick, but with clipped precision, so that the complex interactions of the two choirs around a cantus firmus really zing out.

The lushest version I have, though, is René Jacobs’ 1996 recording featuring the Netherlands Chamber Choir and Concerto Vocale. Like Gardiner, Jacobs opts for doubling the choir in the psalms with instruments to give a really solid sound – the initial entry in ‘Lauda Jerusalem’, for example, is a ‘blow your socks off’ moment. There’s also subtlety, though, and the echo effects between the two tenors in ‘Audi coelum’ are a delight; ‘Duo Seraphim’ is given a sufficiently languorous tempo to allow the three male voices to move against each other with the intensity of planetary collision.

Ultimately, because of the possibilities for variation, there is probably no ‘definitive’ version of the work, and it’s one of those pieces of which you probably need several recordings.

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