Vespro della Beata Vergine (Vespers of the Blessed Virgin)
Ann Monoyios, Marinella Pennicchi, sopranos; Michael Chance, countertenor; Mark Tucker, Nigel Robson, Sandro Naglia, tenors; Bryn Terfel, Alastair Miles, basses
The Monteverdi Choir, The London Oratory Junior Choir
The English Baroque Soloists
on authentic instruments
John Eliot Gardiner, conductor
Deutsche Grammophon, 1990
Few recordings make easy to understand a work in its entirety from the very beginning as Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine (“Vespers of the Blessed Virgin”) conducted by John Eliot Gardiner does. This wonderful album, released in 1990 but recorded the previous year in the wonderful setting of St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice to celebrate the twenty-five years of the Monteverdi Choir, is a sumptuous rendition of Monteverdi’s masterpiece, allowing to enjoy its heterogeneous and refined music, played and sung by first-rate performers.
Vespers of the Blessed Virgin: History
Monteverdi Before the Vespers
It is known that Monteverdi did not wrote sacred music for twenty-eight years when he started the composition of the Vespers, principally because he did not have the duty to provide church works while he was employed at the Court of the Dukes of Mantua.
His two last sacred works, a collection of motets entitled Sacrae Cantiunculae tribus vocibus and the now partially lost Madrigali spirituali, were also signs of his precocious talent, being them written in 1582 and 1583 respectively, when Monteverdi was still in his teens and called himself a «discepolo di Marc’Antonio Ingenieri» (“disciple of Marc-Antoine Ingenieri”). Ingenieri was, incidentally, the maestro di cappella of Cremona Cathedral. Probably he gave Monteverdi private lessons, as the name of the young composer is not mentioned among the singers of the cathedral choir. Ingenieri taught Monteverdi counterpoint and trained him in the composition of various genres (motets, madrigals and canzonettas) and his illustrious pupil remembered him in other four publications.
The Sacrae Cantiunculae and the Madrigali spirituali were old-fashioned work for the 1580s, but twenty-eight years did not pass in vain and the Vespers is not only a “new” kind of work, but it is almost revolutionary. In the fourteen pieces into which the work is divided, Monteverdi summarized and explored all the styles and genres of the sacred music of his time, with extreme care for symmetric balance, a quality that was already noticed in 1834 by Carl Maria von Winterfeld. At the end of the Vespers, Monteverdi also added a six and a seven voices Magnificat, with the former probably parodied by the latter.
The complete title, Vespro della Beata Vergine da concerto, reveals that the Vespers were not necessarily intended for performance during the divine service, as it was usual in the 17th century. It seems probable also that Monteverdi never performed them as a whole, although he conceived them as such.
Some of the Vespers have been written using traditional forms as cantus firmus, falsobordone and separated choirs, but others apply the modern madrigal style. They have more than one touch point with Orfeo. First of all, they have been written for the same forces of Orfeo and moreover several pieces of the Vespers remind of passages of Orfeo, as it happens with Domine ad adiuvandum, a reworking of the instrumental toccata at the beginning of the opera, while Duo Seraphim echoes Possente spirto. More significantly, Monteverdi shows in both works his skill in creating and organizing great and proportioned formal structures, widely elaborated by the process of variation, but this ability is far more superior in the Vespers that in Orfeo.
Reason of Composition
The reason of composition of the Vespers is still controversial. It is possible that the work or part of it was originally used during the inauguration of a new order of chivalry in Mantua in 1608, but this became only a mere starting point when Monteverdi began to work on them two years later. 1610 was a critical year for Monteverdi, who was seeking employment away from Mantua, and it is probable that he was initially thinking of Rome, as the Vespers are dedicated to Pope Paul V Borghese and in a letter dated 16 July 1610 Bassano Casola, Monteverdi’s assistant as choirmaster in Mantua, informed Cardinal Ferdinando Gonzaga that the composer had the intention to go personally to Rome for the dedication.
Anyway, the Vespers, together with the less original, more conservative Messa a sei voci and other sacred works, were published in Venice and it was in this city that Monteverdi finally found his new post, as maestro di cappella of St. Mark’s Cathedral.
Vespers of the Blessed Virgin: the Performance
The 1989 performance of the Vespers by John Eliot Gardiner was really a remarkable one, to the point that it was recorded in audio and video (the DVD adds a twenty minutes interview to Gardiner). Anyway, if the video offers the view of the sumptuous setting of St Mark’s Basilica, the effect is not completely lost in the CD and it can be easily sensed thanks to its fine, detailed sound and in other particulars.
First of all, the conductor’s approach to the work. The Vespers, as it was stated before, were not written to be performed in church exclusively. However, I had the impression that Gardiner does not show any hesitation in giving them a sacred character, a choice maybe influenced by inner conviction, but to which the atmosphere of the Cathedral has given the definitive blessing. The luminous, solemn Domine ad adiuvandum, the heavenly Duo Seraphim, the glorious Lauda Jerusalem and the other pieces are clearly oriented to celebrate the glory of the Holy Virgin and to the expression of elevated feelings.
Singers and Orchestra
The Cathedral seems also to have influenced the disposition of the singers. They have been placed in different sides of the Cathedral, as you can guess by the closer and more distant voices, as in the Magnificat a 6, creating a wonderful effect.
The “devotion” for the holy place is of course accompanied by an equal devotion to the composer and his music. The concurrence of forces is extraordinary and excellent. The London Oratory Junior Choir, the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists do not need an introduction. They are here in a state of grace and offer a memorable performance of the Vespers, thanks also to fine soloists (it is enough to make the names of the two basses, a young Bryn Terfel and Alastair Miles, to give the idea of their skill). Their voices are powerfully captured and offer intact the grandiose suggestion of Monteverdi’s sublime music.
This recording of Monteverdi’s Vespers is simply magnificent. There is not a flaw, not a negligence that a listener may regret. You have only to turn on the CD player and immerse yourself in its wonderful music without second thoughts.