Monteverdi: Selva morale e spirituale

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COMPOSERS: Monteverdi
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Selva morale e spirituale
PERFORMER: Cantus Cölln, Concerto Palatino/Konrad Junghänel
CATALOGUE NO: HMC 901718-20
It’s astonishing that Monteverdi’s own monumental selection of his Venetian sacred music hasn’t appeared in a complete recording since that of Michel Corboz in the Sixties. I virtually wore those LPs through to the other side, bewitched by the variety of style and texture, colours and moods in these 37 pieces. There are continuo-accompanied solos matching Monteverdi’s most dramatic stage music – the ‘Pianto della Madonna’ is a literal reworking of ‘Arianna’s Lament’, the sole remnant of his lost opera of 1608. Psalm settings range from an exuberant solo tenor depicting one-by-one the instruments of Psalm 150 to full-scale concertato settings, the music driven by a bounding crotchet bass supporting harmonies repeated hypnotically, time and again. Here particularly, voices match instrumental agility, while instruments all but articulate words as they echo voices.

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The performance is quite simply outstanding, the voices and strings of Cantus Cölln penetratingly focused yet consistently alive, cornets and trombones of Concerto Palatino warm, enveloping – and impeccably in tune. Junghänel structures the music cleverly, weaving continuity into the constantly changing moods arising from Monteverdi’s sensitivity to words, and repetitions of motifs in short, echoing fragments. He’s helped by excellent recording, exposing every musical point as voices and instruments lean forward in turn and then retreat into the broader texture. The collection, Monteverdi’s archive of three decades of individual compositions, implies no performance order: Junghänel presents it effectively as two collections of Vespers music framing secular moralising madrigals and the curiously retrospective four-part a cappella Mass.

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An outstanding project, long overdue and unreservedly commended.