Monteverdi: Vespers of the Blessed Virgin, 1610

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Monteverdi
WORKS: Vespers of the Blessed Virgin, 1610
PERFORMER: Apollo’s Fire; The Cleveland Baroque Orchestra/Jeannette Sorrell

These CDs come at the end of a spate of recordings issued last year in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the publication of Monteverdi’s Vespers in 1610. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) went on tour with the work and made their recording later, while Apollo’s Fire first issued their recording in 1999 (on Eclectra). In some ways they have similar approaches – both insert one or two liturgical items (not a full service), have a medium-sized choirs (around 20 voices), transpose some of the movements, and are supported by superbly competent instrumentalists. 
That said, the differences are also obvious. The OAE perform the work consistently around a semitone higher than modern pitch which, in the slightly dry acoustic, produces a clear, bright but somewhat empty sound. Also the pitch apparently throws some of the singers, since in ‘Nigra sum’ the tenor soloist completely misses his note a few bars in, and there is something slightly solid and cautious in the beautiful duet ‘Duo Seraphim’. What is impressive is the grammatical sense (underpinned by flexible accentuation) that the choir brings to the projection of the words in Dixit Dominus and at many other places. Also, as we might expect, the instrumentalists are terrific, especially the magical violins in ‘Deposuit potentes’ from the Magnificat.
Apollo’s Fire has a somewhat different agenda: it wants to make an attractive ‘concert’ sound for those who are not too concerned about exactly what Monteverdi himself might have done. The Magnificat movements are transposed up and down to suit the available singers; there is a warm, echoey acoustic, and some sections are taken at breakneck speed. Indeed, ‘Cum dederit’ in Nisi Dominus cackles away like a witches chorus, and the sections in Dixit Dominus where phrases of text are recited in free rhythm on just one chord are perky to the point of grotesque parody. There are some thrilling moments (as in superb singing of the ‘Gloria Patri’ trio from the Magnificat), but making the music dance at whatever cost is an approach that works best only for the first couple of hearings – and the heavy bass sound does not always aid that agenda in any case.
Both versions here offer individualistic thrills, but neither is recommendable as a standard, benchmark recording. They are not fully liturgical or ‘historical’ (which does not matter), but neither do they have consistency of musical understanding (which does). Anthony Pryer