Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine

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COMPOSERS: Monteverdi
LABELS: Capriccio
WORKS: Vespro della Beata Vergine
PERFORMER: Mechthild Bach, Barbara Fleckenstein (soprano), Christoph Prégardien, Peter Schmitz (tenor), Klaus Mertens, Michael George (bass)Frankfurt Vocal Ensemble, Il Basso Instrumental Ensemble/Ralf Otto
For all the scholarship devoted to them, Monteverdi’s Vespers are still clouded in mystery. A unified work, or a compendium? For a Marian festival or another saint? For single voices throughout, or for contrasting textures? And which acoustic – St Peter’s echoing vaults (they were dedicated to the Pope), St Markvast cupolas (Monteverdi was job-hunting in Venice), or the more modest scale of Santa Barbara in the ducal palace at Mantua?


Ralf Otto seems drawn to Mantua. The moderate resonance allows tempi lively enough to fit everything unhastily on to a single, generous disc. Though some rhythms are rather deliberate, most are lively – a very ‘chiffy’ organ adds a percussive kick to ‘Ave maris stella’ – and the solo virtuosity in the ‘modern’ monodic lines is positively mercurial.


Otto’s cosmopolitan forces tease out the kaleidoscopic styles. Some liberties with instruments – extra recorders, including sopraninos – reflect the operatic world of Orfeo, from which the opening ‘Domine ad iuvandum’ is borrowed. The florid duet, ‘Pulchra es’, contains a remarkable pre-echo of the lascivious sensuality of Poppea, over thirty years later. Madrigalian word-play – punningly echoing final syllables – alternates with massive Palestrinian polyphony, with flashing cornet decorations. Authentic or not, this is heady stuff. George Pratt