Vespro della Beata Vergine
Vespers of the Blessed Virgin
Gabrieli Consort and Players
Int. Release 02 Oct. 2006
0289 477 6147 1 DDD AH2
Paul McCreesh and his Gabrieli Consort present a sumptuous new reading of Monteverdi’s sacred Vespers masterpiece
Ravishing McCreesh . . . No weak links exist in Paul McCreesh¿s new recording . . . Susan Hemington-Jones and Tessa Bonner capture the perfect blend of sensuality and chastity in ¿Pulchra es,¿ Joseph Cornwell's ¿Nigra sum¿ is masterful, while the cornets in ¿Deposuit potentes de sede¿ are ravishing. The string sound is particularly fascinating, as violinists Catherine Martin and Oliver Webber play on specially commissioned ¿Monteverdi violins¿ made by George Stoppani. The Gabrieli Consort recording has the finest instrumental playing I've heard, and the most literate and intelligent continuo accompaniment.
The Gabrieli Consort's ensemble singing is crisp, fleet and beautifully articulated . . . McCreesh's Vespers are . . . a serious, thoughtful and generally very persuasive possible solution.
The results . . . are glorious . . . McCreesh gives us a compelling attempt to place Monteverdi's settings of the five psalms, the hymn and the Magnificat appropriately amongst the plainsongs and incidental music of a Vespers service . . . There are . . . some extra rewards in McCreesh's version. First, the instrumental playing is superbly effective in the big choral pieces. Second, there is an attempt to take on board recent scholarship concerning the speed relations between sections, especially in the Sonata sopra Santa Maria . . . the singing is generally good and, in the solos sung by Charles Daniels, among the best you are likely to hear in this repertory. Finally, the performers sound as if they understand the Latin words, which results in some marvellously fresh phrasing in Nisi Dominus and elsewhere. The alert rhythms and the good recording standards . . . put it ahead . . .
McCreesh does it all so naturally that his use of plainchant and the insertions of instrumental movements by other late renaissance composers, as well as an organ improvisation, merely enhance the impact of Monteverdi's extraordinary compendium of choral music and bind it into an organic unity . . . The performances are . . . musically judicious in their scale and instrumentation . . .
McCreesh's homogeneous and compact performance has plenty of merit beyond its scholarly credentials: Catherine Martin and Oliver Webber's early Baroque violins have a distinctive sinewy timbre, the Gabriele Consort's plainchant is evocative, McCreesh's energetic conception of the Vespers has plenty of vitality, and his musicians capture a sensation of immediacy that eludes many rival performances . . . an admirable and enjoyable achievement.
[Weber]: . . . McCreesh provides a full-voiced pre-intonation followed by the presider's proper intonation . . . The singers are equal to the best of the competition, and McCreesh has a clear grasp of the work stemming from his longtime efforts . . . It is competitive in a crowded field.
. . . we have here a full liturgical reconstruction in the manner of Parrott, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Christopers . . .The singers are equal to the best of the competition, and McCreesh has a clear grasp of the work stemming from his longtime efforts . . . It is competitive in a crowded field.
Excellent solo singing from the men . . . exhilarating.
. . . [er] geht mit aufführungspraktischen Streitfragen sehr souverän und auf eine angenehme Art selbstverständlich um . . . Dass vokal- und instrumentaltechnisch alles auf dem höchsten Niveau abläuft, welches Englands Alte-Musik-Spezialisten zu bieten haben, braucht da kaum noch erwähnt zu werden.
Mit rein solistisch besetzten Vokalstimmen und Instrumentalbesatz nur dort, wo ihn Monteverdi ausdrücklich vorschreibt, erreichen McCreesh und sein Gabrieli Consort . . . ein Optimum an Transparenz.
Der Dirigent Paul McCreesh legt eine Einspielung der Vesper vor, die die Teile der gedruckten Fassung von 1610 zu einem überzeugenden Ganzen zusammenfügt. Ohne auf die absolute historische Korrektheit seiner Version zu pochen, führt McCreesh mit dem Gabrieli Consort & Players Monteverdis Musik so auf, wie sie zur Entstehungszeit bei einem Vespergottesdienst an Mariä Verkündigung erklungen sein könnte . . . McCreesh [verwendet] nur dann Instrumente, wenn der Komponist tatsächlich Stimmen für sie geschrieben hat. In der kleinen Besetzung bilden die hervorragenden Sänger zusammen mit dem Basso continuo das transparente Kernensemble. Die sparsam eingesetzten Instrumentalstimmen umspielen den Gesang effektvoll und setzen Glanzpunkte. Der Gestus des Musizierens wirkt rund und angenehm unaufgeregt. Die Soli erlangen durch sorgfältige Linienführung besondere Intensität. Geradezu berückend ist am Schluss das »Audi coelum«, in dem die ganze Innigkeit der Marienverehrung im leuchtenden Vokalklang aufscheint.
Paul McCreesh hat gründlich nachgedacht über die diversen und viel diskutierten Mysterien von Claudio Monteverdis Marienvesper . . . McCreesh, ohnehin der Liturgiepapst unter den Alte-Musik-Interpreten, findet eine überzeugende Lösung . . . sie [ist] bis ins Detail durchdacht und bedacht -- etwa in den Proportionen von Zweier- und Dreiermetrum, die keinem pauschalen Beschleunigungsruck unterworfen werden, sondern flexibleren Temporelationen folgen. Das alles hat seinen Sinn . . .
La direction de McCreesh . . . [cultive] une extrême diversité d'atmosphères. Ainsi, les choix des proportions rythmiques, avec des sections ternaires assez lentes, sont souvent séduisant. Cependant, les tempos de base sont très variables . . . les contrepoints proposés par les réalisation de la basse continue (en particulier dans le Laetatus sum) sont souvent intéressants.
. . . le résultat s'avère . . .
Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers
Tim Carter in conversation with Paul McCreesh
In 1610, Claudio Monteverdi published his Missa...ac Vespere for feasts of the Blessed Virgin. Its dedication to Pope Paul V and its ambitious scope suggest that the composer was looking to expand his horizons beyond his current position as master of the court chamber music to Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga of Mantua. The Mass, which parodies a motet (“In illo tempore”) by the long-dead Franco-Flemish composer Nicholas Gombert, is in what would have been recognized as an “old” contrapuntal style typical of the musical Renaissance. However, we usually, if perhaps wrongly, tend to associate the Vespers with the flamboyant musical Baroque.
Vespers is the principle evening service of the Office, and in early 17th-century Italy on special feasts it was often celebrated with large-scale music. The format is laid down by the liturgy: an introit, five psalms each framed by a plainsong antiphon, a hymn, and the Magnificat (again framed by an antiphon), plus other versicles and responses. The bigger churches, especially those with significant musical resources, would usually treat Vespers as an opportunity to combine voices and instruments, plainchant with polyphony, and large-scale psalm settings for the cappella with smaller-scale motets for one, two, or three voices, organ music or instrumental sonatas. These motets and sonatas could stand apart or could substitute for one of the two statements of an antiphon; in either case, they provided further opportunity for affective or meditative music. The 1610 print provides the basic materials for such a celebration, if not quite in the manner one might expect.
Monteverdi’s Vespers has also played a significant role in the early-music revival of the past century, often being regarded as a test piece challenging ensembles large and small to prove their mettle. As a result, it has become hard to separate modern myths from early 17th-century realities. Paul McCreesh has a strong sense of both, and a powerful vision of what we might still learn about the greatest piece of sacred music of its time.
TC: You have been performing Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers for almost 25 years. What is it about this piece that keeps you coming back to it?
PMcC: Well, I’m still struck by just how little we know about it. Of course the music itself is breathtaking, but it throws up so many questions. All the big “early music” issues are there: is it a single work or a miscellany, is it written for choir or solo voices, how much should the instruments play? Then there are all those problems with the 1610 print, ranging from typographical errors through ambiguous performance directions to issues of ordering and function. Most of all, however, it is a work that always forces both performers and listeners to challenge preconceptions and to reconsider the music with fresh ears.
In 1951, Leo Schrade hailed Monteverdi as the “creator of modern music”; more recently, we have tended, rather, to place him at the end of the musical Renaissance. Where does Monteverdi sit for you?
For me, Monteverdi looks both backward and forward. As we see with Schoenberg or Webern, one can only be a revolutionary when one truly understands the past. This duality lies at the heart of the Vespers. On the one hand, some of the music harks back to Giaches de Wert and the old sacred school; on the other, there is new-style declamatory music in the most up-to-date manner. Even as Monteverdi advertises his use of old-fashioned plainchant cantus firmi on his title-page, he gives this technique a distinct twist, weaving around the long-note plainsong a rich fabric combining the warp of Renaissance counterpoint with the weft of modern virtuoso writing. And although instruments were not unusual in church – despite our modern misconceptions of the (purely vocal) Palestrina style – they gain an entirely new rhetorical power by virtue of Monteverdi’s dazzling effects.
Take the opening “Deus in adiutorium meum intende... Domine ad adiuvandum”. How often must a Renaissance duke have entered to a fanfare, and sat down to hear his court chapel chant in simple chordal recitation in the manner known as falsobordone. These are two utterly traditional elements, yet Monteverdi superimposes them to electrifying effect. The result is all the more striking because here Monteverdi also reworks music he had provided for the opening of his opera Orfeo (1607). The heraldic significance of such a gesture, which must have truly impressed the Gonzagas, should not be underestimated.
So for you, the 1610 Vespers comes from a Mantuan environment, even though we know we know almost nothing about the circumstances surrounding their composition or first performance (if any).
Yes. Monteverdi may have been advertising his musical skills in order to gain employment elsewhere, and it is surely no coincidence that in 1613 he moved to take up one of the most prestigious musical posts in Italy, as maestro di cappella at the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice. But he was an eminently pragmatic composer and must surely have been writing for the musical resources he had to hand.
Although it would be fascinating to discover more about the occasion(s) for which the Vespers may have been written, or when they might have been performed, we do in fact have a great deal of information about music in Mantua, both at court and in the ducal chapel dedicated to the Gonzaga’s patron saint, St. Barbara. We know that Duke Vincenzo had access to superb musicians: an expert madrigal ensemble; an esteemed vocal cappella; the virtuoso tenors Francesco Rasi and Francesco Campagnolo; some fine violinists (including the brothers Giovan Battista and Orazio Rubini); and a renowned Cremonese wind band led by cornettist Giulio Cesare Bianchi. We also have Orfeo, which is in many ways a sister work to the Vespers; compare the tenor writing in “Possente spirto e formidabil nume” with, say, “Audi coelum” or “Duo Seraphim” (incidentally, the text of the latter has close connections with the Gonzaga veneration of St. Barbara). So I don’t think we are totally in the dark: a work that springs from this tradition must reflect Mantuan personnel, performance practices and preferred musical styles.
Of course there are many who seem intent to create a mythology that the Vespers was created for St. Mark’s in Venice, and no doubt the idea of Monteverdi’s glorious music ricocheting around the fabulous cupolas of the basilica is an attractive one. In fact, the music neither reflects existing Venetian repertories nor anticipates what Monteverdi was to write when he moved there.
There has been some controversy over whether the 1610 Vespers is just a collection of miscellaneous pieces put together for the convenience of publication, or whether it was conceived as a single work. Part of the problem is the motets (called “concerti”) separating the psalms, which do not set the liturgically “correct” texts; another is the question of modal unity. Clearly you view the Vespers as performable within a single service, but what choices have you had to make as a result?
I doubt very much that the Vespers was composed in one sitting, but nevertheless it certainly forms a coherent entity: the title-page of the 1610 print makes that explicit. And there is a very logical order in the print, with the psalms in their correct liturgical sequence, interspersed with the extra-liturgical pieces in the entirely normal printer’s order of ascending number of voices. But while some choose to perform the music as published, I think it is possible to create a far more convincing artistic statement if one reorders the music to take account of contemporary liturgical practice.
For example, Monteverdi’s print concludes with two settings of the Magnificat, one for seven voices and instruments, and a smaller one for six and basso continuo. The larger one is performed most often (as here), in part because it is thought to provide a spectacular conclusion to the work. However, in a Vespers service the Magnificat also has its concluding antiphon, and then (if Vespers were not followed immediately by Compline) there would be a prayer and antiphon to the Blessed Virgin. Ending a performance of the 1610 Vespers with a full-throttle Magnificat may suit our post-Romantic musical sensibilities, but it would certainly not have been the final music heard in a 17th-century service.
There is enough evidence in contemporary documents to suggest that an instrumental piece such as the Sonata sopra “Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis” would be treated as a substitute for the repeated antiphon after the Magnificat (even though it is before the hymn in the 1610 print). Similarly, I prefer to draw upon motets located earlier in the print for additional items following the Magnificat. As many scholars have pointed out, the Trinitarian motet “Duo seraphim” sits uncomfortably in a collection of Vespers music for the Blessed Virgin, and it is unlikely to have replaced a Marian antiphon. “Audi coelum” also seems too elaborate and far too long for its companion psalm “Nisi Dominus”. So, I have moved “Duo Seraphim” toward the end, in place of the “Deo gratias” (where the motet need not have specific reference to the feast being celebrated), and “Audi coelum” is shifted to substitute for the Marian antiphon at the very end of Vespers.
I’m not saying that this is necessarily “correct”, even if it is certainly plausible. Also, I think it a mistake to view the Vespers as a single “work” in the manner of, say, the Brahms Requiem. There is some evidence to suggest that Monteverdi performed single movements separately, and those in different formats (for example, “Dixit Dominus” or the hymn “Ave maris stella” without their instrumental ritornellos). However, I do feel that our version offers a more satisfying musical, emotional, and even spiritual experience.
The 1610 Vespers is fraught with practical performance problems such as vocal scoring, instrumentation, ornamentation and transposition of “high-clef” pieces, and proportional relations between sections in different metres. How did you go about solving them?
Books have been written on these subjects. I take a hard line on some issues, such as downward transposition of the high-clef movements (“Lauda Ierusalem” and the Magnificats). When one knows 16th- and 17th-century music in some depth, one cannot accept these movements at written pitch: the voices and, still more, the instruments go far too high for their normal range. Proportions are a far harder issue, and the fact that Monteverdi uses old- and new-style notation within the same collection of pieces does not help; nor do other inconsistencies caused by printing errors, or just by Monteverdi’s being lax. So, we perform many of our triple times with a slower metrical relationship to the duple beat than is usual – I am sure this is a basic norm, even if it feels unusual to our 21st-century ears – although at times the faster relationship seems intended, especially in the more modern sections. I also have strong feelings on matters of instrumentation. Too often conductors, misquoting contemporary theorists such as Michael Praetorius, seek to reorchestrate Monteverdi’s music in elaborate garb. I use instruments only when the composer explicitly writes parts for them. The basic ensemble is that of solo voices with continuo, upon which, from time to time, is grafted the exquisite colour of solo instruments.
Now that you have recorded the 1610 Vespers, are you done with them?
Well, I hope not... I’m sure that 25 years from now I will still be both fascinated with and infuriated by this extraordinary music, just as I was when I was a 20-year-old student who knew nothing much of music before Tchaikovsky. I still don’t know why Monteverdi sets melismas on what seem to be the least interesting words in ‘Dixit Dominus’; I still find the proportional changes in the sonata bafflingly complex; I wonder endlessly about the modal inflections of musica ficta... But how could one ever grow weary of those breathtaking moments when Monteverdi takes us to another world; the mesmerizing ending of “Audi coelum” which seems to sum up the essence of Marian worship; or that sublime moment when those gloriously eloquent cornetts displace the mighty from their seats and the whole world seems to turn on its axis? To tire of this wonderful, timeless masterpiece would be to tire of life!
Tim Carter is the author of Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre (Yale University Press, 2002) and is David G. Frey Distinguished Professor of Music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.