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
CATALOGUE NO: 10 516 DDD
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?

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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.

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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