03 May 2014

CD REVIEW: Claudio Monteverdi – VESPRO DELLA BEATA VERGINE (Chœur de Chambre de Namur, Cappella Mediterranea; Ambronay Éditions AMY041)

Claudio Monteverdi - VESPRO DELLA BEATA VERGINE (Ambronay Éditions AMY041)

CLAUDIO MONTEVERDI (1567 – 1643): Vespro della beata vergina (1610)Céline Scheen and Mariana Flores, sopranos; Fabián Schofrin, countertenor; Fernando Guimarães and Zachary Wilder, tenors; Matteo Bellotto and Victor Torres, baritones; Sergio Foresti, bass; Chœur de chambre de Namur; Cappella Mediterranea; Leonardo García Alarcón, conductor [Recorded in the Abbatial Church of Ambronay, Ambronay, Ain, Rhône-Alpes, France, 7 – 12 September 2013; Ambronay Éditions AMY041; 2CD, 87:18; Available from Amazon, fnac, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​When Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespro della beata vergine was first published in Venice in 1610, it is doubtful whether the seismic significance of the music—its forms, its fusions of old and new, its almost erotic expressivity—was fully apparent to Monteverdi’s contemporaries. In the pages of the score, the Italian Renaissance was given an ornate, deeply respectful funeral, and in the soil loosely tossed over the grave Monteverdi cultivated new species whose fragrant blossoms would eventually be pressed among the pages of Purcell’s Anthems, Bach’s Passions, Händel’s oratorios, Haydn’s Masses, Rossini’s Stabat mater, Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, and every choral work of each subsequent generation. In Monteverdi’s Vespro are the first sounds of Mozart’s ‘Ave verum corpus,’ Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem, and Howells’s ‘Take him, Earth, for cherishing.’ As radical in the appropriate context as Wagner’s ‘Tristan chord’ or the twelve-tone system of the Second Viennese School, Monteverdi’s innovations in his 1610 Vespers were as much refining as redefining: like Mahler, Monteverdi preserved the best of the past in structures that ensured appreciation in future. Though there is no greater certainty now than when interest in this remarkable score was rekindled about the circumstances that spurred creation and compilation of these diverse sacred ‘concerti,’ the six decades since the earliest efforts at recording the Vespers have engendered a plethora of theories concerning stylistic and practical aspects of performing the music. It is not even known whether Monteverdi intended the individual numbers to be performed in succession—and, if so, in which order—on a single liturgical occasion. Perhaps even the work’s presumptive title is misleading: recent scholarship suggests that, if the Vespers were devised as a functional whole for celebration of a Church festivity, it was likely for veneration of Saint Barbara in the Mantua Basilica of the Gonzaga family rather than for Marian rites. What is more certain is that musicologists, conductors, and period-specialist performers have in the past sixty years created a discography for Vespro della beata vergine in which a multitude of theories have been put into practice. In many ways, this new recording from Ambronay Éditions and Leonardo García Alarcón is the most adventurous performance of Monteverdi’s mercurial score yet preserved on disc: from its first note, this is a performance that discards preconceptions and the sorts of traditions justified solely by the argument of precedent. This recording, too, is an examination of theories, but the experiments are conducted in resplendent sound rather than in expostulations of vacuous words scribbled by scholars in musical journals.

Recorded in the Abbatiale, Ambronay’s Gothic abbatial church, this performance is placed in a resonant acoustic that likely replicates the sonic ambiance of Mantua’s Basilica palatina di Santa Barbara without afflicting the music with any of the troubling effects of echoes and distortion. Balances among singers and musicians sound more natural than on most recordings of this music, of course keeping in mind that any arrangement of forces with pretensions of authenticity is founded upon conjecture. Virtually everything that is known about Monteverdi's distributions and positioning of musical personnel dates from his tenure at Venice’s Basilica di San Marco and thus may or may not have bearing on similar logistics during his employment at the Gonzaga court. In a pragmatic sense, this is both confounding and liberating to a modern conductor: though a plan of placement of voices and instruments cannot ever be claimed to be wholly right, neither can it be dismissed as altogether wrong. The same logic applies equally to the music, and this enables a thoughtful conductor like Maestro García Alarcón to make bold choices. His decisions in this performance are anything but academic shots in the dark, however: he has targeted the emotional core of each movement of the Vespers and devised a musical arsenal specially appointed for resuscitating the spirit of each text. The irony of his choices is that Maestro García Alarcón ultimately proves quite conservative in the sense that his actions are informed by a pervasive understanding of the music and its problems. In those passages in which this performance differs most from other recorded accounts of the Vespers it may well come closest to the ethos of the music as Monteverdi envisioned it. Certainly, Maestro García Alarcón’s leadership produces a performance that emphasizes the continuity and consistency of inspiration of the music, and stylistically the inner links among the individual numbers are emphasized without distortion. Short of some miraculous rediscovery of primary-source documentation of the first performance(s) of the Vespers, it is unlikely that there will ever be definitive answers to the questions raised by the Vespro della beata vergine. This performance may not be a perfect facsimile of the Vespers as their composer expected to hear them, but it is impossible to imagine Monteverdi being anything but pleased and profoundly moved by this performance.

The success of Maestro García Alarcón’s concept as recorded owes much to the phenomenal playing of the GRAMMY®-nominated Cappella Mediterranea. Without a single weakness, the playing of Cappella Mediterranea triumphs where performances by many period-instrument ensembles fail most detrimentally, namely in the wind playing. The twenty-three players of Cappella Mediterranea give performances of sterling virtuosity and expressivity, but special mention is due to the extraordinary playing by Judith Pacquier, Gustavo Gargiulo, and Rodrigo Calverya on cornets; Sylvain Sartre and Sarah van Cornewal on piffari (double-reeded relatives of the modern oboe); Giulia Genini and Mr. Calverya on recorders; and Fabien Cherrier, Jean-Noël Gamet, and Adrian France on sackbuts. In many past recordings of the music of Monteverdi and his contemporaries, the imminent appearances of these instruments induced cringes of anticipated perturbation: in this recording, every note produced by these instruments—and these fantastic musicians—delights. It is the overall preeminence of Cappella Mediterranea’s playing that impresses most, however. The collective instrumental complement is a breathing, palpitating participant in the performance that collaborates with the singers rather than merely accompanying them. The twenty-one singers of the Chœur de chambre de Namur excel in every choral passage of the Vespers, producing impeccably-balanced, plangent sounds in introverted moments and hurtling through their most difficult contrapuntal music with energy that does not undermine the formidable accuracy of their singing. In the monumental setting of the ‘Magnificat’ that crowns the Vespers, the choristers and instrumentalists achieve sublime heights of expression that seize the imagination in ways that few performances of this music have done in past.

The achievements of the Cappella Mediterranea and Chœur de chambre de Namur deserve to be combined with solo singing of equal accomplishment, and the team of soloists assembled for this recording delivers capitally. The poised, polished tone that sopranos Céline Scheen and Mariana Flores bring to their lines, particularly in the rapt account of ‘Pulchra es,’ is startlingly beautiful, and the zeal and merit of their singing is matched by the performance of countertenor Fabián Schofrin, whose firm, focused voice lends unexpected poignancy to the alto lines. Some of the most stringent bravura demands in this performance are made of the tenor soloists, and Fernando Guimarães and Zachary Wilder respond with breathtaking exhibitions of technical prowess, not least in the dazzling ‘Nigra sum,’ the glorious ‘Duo Seraphim,’ and the penultimate ‘Gloria Patri’ in the ‘Magnificat.’ Baritones Matteo Bellotto and Victor Torres and bass Sergio Foresti sing their parts superbly, supplying the strength and suppleness required by the music but so seldom heard in it. Among both the soloists and the choir, every individual number is performed unforgettably, but even in such a setting the grandeur of ‘Lauda Jerusalem’ is intensely stirring, the tension so masterfully built in the rise and fall of the music resolved with a cathartic statement of the concluding ‘Amen.’ The performance of ‘Ave maris stella’ aptly evokes both the disquietude of troubled seas and tranquil starlight, and the whole of the ‘Magnificat’ is performed with elating sincerity and unparalleled musicality. Purely in terms of possession of technical aptitude equal to the needs of the music, these soloists are among the best-qualified singers ever to record this music: their mastery of such elusive devices as the Monteverdian trillo is exceptional, especially in Mr. Wilder’s case, and all of the singers leave nothing to be desired in their negotiations of Monteverdi’s often exacting coloratura. More importantly, they truly comprise a team, not just among themselves but also with the choristers, instrumentalists, and Maestro García Alarcón.

There are as many valid ways of interpreting Monteverdi’s enigmatic Vespro della beata vergine as there are performers willing to face the challenges of the music. As in music of any vintage, however, those interpretations that prove most valid are those that extrapolate least—those, that is, that look to rather than beyond the score. In the score of Vespro della beata vergine, there are many blanks to be filled in, and the evidence of the Vespers’ performance history and discography suggests that just enough is known about Monteverdi and period-appropriate practices to facilitate the commission of every sort of idiocy in alleged pursuits of authenticity. It may be argued that Leonardo García Alarcón’s interpretation of Vespro della beata vergine on this recording is unconventional, but the standards by which this judgment is made are flawed. If it is a flaw to defy trends guided by imperfect and egotistical scholarship, this performance of Vespro della beata vergine is splendidly fallacious. It seems certain that such deficiencies as these would gladden Monteverdi himself.