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Monteverdi: Vespers

The Choir of the Enlightenment, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Robert Howarth (conductor)
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Recording details: August 2010
Kings Place, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by Mike Hatch & Craig Jenkins
Release date: February 2011
Total duration: 97 minutes 2 seconds

This disc represents a new orchestra partnership for Signum Records with The Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, one of London and the world’s leading period-instrument ensembles. Led by Robert Howarth, the recording of Claudio Monteverdi's work (Vespers of the Blessed Virgin, 1610) was made at Kings Place following the orchestra's successful 2010 tour of the work.


'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 … the instrumentalists are terrific, especially the magical violins in 'Deposuit potentes' from the Magnificat' (BBC Music Magazine)» More

'Not all orchestras are the same', runs the message on the cover, and it’s true … Robert Howarth has assigned the parts to more versatile voices which can follow Monteverdi’s partbook outside their comfort zone, while using ingenious blends of voices to achieve a shimmering, captivating choral sound that seems to float effortlessly through the psalms' (The Daily Telegraph)» More

'The Choir of the Enlightenment sings with the light freshness and clarity which have now come to be firmly associated with Baroque performances … this is a worthy addition to the existing clutch of recordings' (Classic FM Magazine)» More

The Vespers at 400
Among history’s legions of musical geniuses, there are relatively few genuine revolutionaries. Those who do achieve that status usually fuse their radical vision of the future with a sound understanding of the past. There can be few more obvious proponents of that ability in music than Claudio Monteverdi, and the sounds he created in his 1610 Vespers alone would comfortably prove it.

The Vespers was published in a 1610 volume that contained other music by Monteverdi too—most significantly a Mass setting based on material by his predecessor Nicolas Gombert. This work saw Monteverdi take no great stylistic leap forward, but instead demonstrate his total mastery of the ‘old style’. Pages later in the Vespers, the composer created new-sounding sonorities and textures and new ways of responding to written texts. But as technically innovative as his writing was, much of it was built on the ancient thematic patterns of plainsong.

Performing the Vespers in 2010, the musicians and singers of the OAE had the benefit of heightened perspective, more (though still not enough) contextual evidence and a greater appetite for surrounding research and debate. Who knows how the Vespers will be viewed on its five-hundredth birthday, or even if this recorded snapshot of it will exist? In 2010 many musicians celebrated this masterpiece, striving to understand it in the context of their musical aesthetics as they stood there and then. Even that, as the performers on this CD know, had its challenges.

The Office of Vespers
Vespers is the principal evening service of the Roman church. In Monteverdi’s Europe, it was the one daily office always enhanced with music. The service combines prescribed responses and psalms with additional hymns and antiphons, and reaches its apex in the Magnificat—the Virgin Mary’s song of praise to God.

One of the central questions hanging over Monteverdi’s Vespers ‘book’ is whether the composer designed the publication as a single work not to be altered or as more of a resource—a collection of works which could be dipped in and out of. In reality, it was probably conceived as both: written initially for performance as a whole while proving useful to its composer as a musical ‘toolkit’ according to liturgical need.

The Vespers and Monteverdi’s career
Folklore has long labelled Monteverdi’s Vespers the most elaborate job application in history. Its creator was born in Cremona and trained as a chorister in the town before becoming a string player in the court at Mantua in 1590. Some claim that as the new century dawned, Monteverdi had itchy feet and was desperate to broaden his horizons outside Mantua. Did he have an eye on the ‘top job’—running the music at St Mark’s basilica in Venice? Was the Vespers a demonstration of musical prowess? Did the composer knowingly include music in it that was tailored to the architectural qualities of St Mark’s?

Probably not. Or at least not intentionally. The Vespers’ musical style doesn’t anticipate that which Monteverdi adopted when he eventually did get the Maestro di Capella job at St Mark’s in 1613, and research has shown that the composer was actually courting employment in Rome during 1610. Furthermore, scholars point to the Vespers’ tailoring to the abilities and configuration of the musical forces at Mantua. Acoustically, the Ducal Chapel would have dealt far better with the intricate detailing of Monteverdi’s writing. Unaccompanied choral music best suited the washy acoustic of St Mark’s, and Monteverdi wrote plenty of it after he was appointed there (though he did also revive the Vespers).

Monteverdi and text
‘Monteverdi was passionate about us being moved by sacred texts as much as operatic ones’, says Robert Howarth. The composer had contemporary taste on his side: in the 1580s an artistic movement born in Florence had sought to rid music of multi-layered polyphony in order that words became discernable when sung. In following this doctrine, the Florentine Camerata effectively invented the form of speech-song known as ‘recitative’.

Much of the music for the Vespers falls into two categories which themselves form a neat pattern. The first four psalm settings illustrate how Monteverdi made innovative use of plainsong within ostensibly traditional forms; the four motets that follow them hold the key to Monteverdi’s response to text. The latter are also built most explicitly in the ‘new style’: motets for one, two or three voices with basso continuo, a structure which would become a linchpin of the Baroque.

The first two post-psalm motets Nigra sum and Pulchra es use highly-charged texts from the Song of Solomon. Monteverdi responds to their emotional content with memorable musical phrases tailored to the detail of the words. The best example is found in Nigra sum at the point when the soloist sings ‘Surge amica mea’ (‘rise up, my love’) to upward rising scales. Duo Seraphim steps onto even more declamatory ground, the music hovering melodramatically over sobbing trills and skipping through dotted rhythms. Monteverdi’s reference to the Holy Trinity is marked by the dramatic entrance of a third voice.

Audi caelum is conceived as an ‘echo’ piece, an established form. But Monteverdi approaches it with new techniques: echoes are used to expand phrases and add emphasis rather than to spin out material. When the full choral group enters, the echoing voices maintain the sensuous mood on the words ‘miseris solamen’. Monteverdi’s word-painting might be most obvious in these motets, but it’s by no means confined to them.

The shock of the old: Plainsong in the Vespers
Monteverdi’s Vespers suggested remarkable new uses for plainsong—the themes derived from monastic chant which had long dominated sacred music. In the opening phrase of the Vespers, we hear a ‘straight’ plainsong intonation on the words ‘Deus in adiutorium meum intende’ (God come to my aid). What follows is a chordal proclamation of the plainsong response surrounded by elaborate D major instrumental fanfares (borrowed by Monteverdi from his opera L’Orfeo) with instrumental ritornelli capping each phrase.

That opening feels like a manifesto of Monteverdi’s intention to build his Vespers on plainsong, and there’s plenty more to come. In Laetatus sum Monteverdi uses a ground bass anticipating the high Baroque style of Corelli while laying plainsong over it—firstly as a melodic theme and later as a ‘cantus firmus’ (a ‘hidden’ line woven into the activities of the other voices and instruments). For the clearest example of that technique, listen out for a central group of singers intoning the plainsong ‘cantus firmus’ throughout the busy textures of Lauda Jerusalem.

The Dixit Dominus begins with what appears to be a simple recitation of the psalm’s unadulterated plainsong theme, launched by the Second Tenors on the words ‘Dixit Dominus’ and imitated by the First and then Second Basses. It’s a trick from Monteverdi. But far from devolving into straightforwardly polyphonic music free from any explicit framework, the movement continues to be controlled by the plainsong theme.

In the hymn Ave maris stella the plainsong theme associated with that text is elaborated in the various verses; here Monteverdi gives the impression of writing utterly ‘moderno’ free flowing phrases by transforming the theme into a song in triple time. In the choral bookends to the same movement, Monteverdi places a purposeful, leading cadence at the end of each line; here he has freed the plainsong theme from its ancient mode and given it life with modern-style harmonies.

The Exultent caeli and Magnificat
A motet on a Marian text, Exultent caeli, is used as the Magnificat’s antiphon on this recording. It’s from Monteverdi’s pen but doesn’t date from 1610 and isn’t from the Vespers/Mass publication. The OAE included it here because it uses a text appropriate for the feast of the Annunciation (a hymn of praise on the Virgin’s conception). There’s every likelihood Monteverdi would have done the same.

Monteverdi’s Magnificat represents a meeting of all the styles explored in the Vespers, and contains all the musical qualities mentioned up till now. It makes inventive use of plainsong and contains highly evocative reflections of the words it sets. Across twelve parts it moves from quasi-operatic ‘scena’ to instrumental ritornelli and multi-voiced polyphony. All, though, feature the steady thread of the plainsong cantus firmus. ‘Passion and magnificence are inseparable words in describing this music’, observed Monteverdi’ biographer Denis Arnold, who believed that no Venetian of the time could have matched Monteverdi’s stylistic diversity. So richly does Monteverdi use his resources that only in his great final chorus do instruments double voices.

An ‘authentic’ Vespers?
Monteverdi’s Vespers throws up just about every big problem a performer of early music can face. We don’t know whether the writing is intended for choral or solo voices. We don’t know how much Monteverdi intended instruments to accompany those voices. We can’t be sure how many of those instruments looked or what pitch they sounded at. We don’t even know for certain whether the Vespers was conceived as a single work or a miscellany.

What we can do is take an educated guess on all counts. ‘I’m pretty resolute not to double the voices with instruments unless told to do so by the partbooks,’ says Robert Howarth. He uses a choir rather than single voices, but acknowledges that Monteverdi would probably have used a smaller ensemble. On the OAE’s 2010 Vespers tour, he judged tempi according to acoustic; the microphones here were hung in the small wood-lined auditorium at Kings Place, London.

This recording is pitched at A = 466, a semitone higher than modern concert pitch. ‘Research has shown that the organs in Venice were tuned to this pitch, which helps to make sense of the relatively low tessitura of the work,’ says Howarth. The Magnificat and Lauda Jerusalem will sound down a fourth; in accordance with the theory of ‘chiavette’ cleffs, musicians in Monteverdi’s day would often transpose pieces down a fourth or fifth. ‘Transposed down the movements blend with the others and form a unified vocal span for the whole work,’ Howarth believes.

Andrew Mellor 2010

I’d like to introduce this CD with a few words on our live recording. Following a successful tour in the late spring of 2010, there was a lot of excitement about this project and many people were hoping to find a way of archiving this experience. We were all fortunate enough that the OAE managed to find the resources to make this possible, and for that I am most grateful. A few months after the tour, we reconvened in Kings Place, the home of the OAE, for a one-off performance to be recorded and released on the OAE’s new label and it is an honour and a privilege to have been part of that.

For me the Vespers is such an important work. It turned my head when I heard it as a teenager and really cemented my path on the road towards ‘early music’. Ever since then I have wanted to direct performances of it and play it as many times as possible. It is a work of such beauty and depth that such a wide variety of interpretations can be made of it. I would like to explain briefly some of the choices that I made in preparing for this:

Monteverdi’s publication appears as partbooks and not as a full score. Many editors have undertaken the task of putting together a performing edition and I’m sure they will all acknowledge that none of them are perfect. What lies within these books are dark mysterious codes about how to interpret the music. Once an editor has made decisions on your behalf, it is difficult not to do their version. One thing that does become clear is that the choir for which this was written was versatile and probably didn’t restrain its forces with neat labels like SATB (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass). This is evident from the partbooks whose pitch ranges are often very large. We must not forget that gentlemen singers in these times were often required to sing not only in their normal voices but also in their head voices to sing the high notes. Bearing this in mind, I set out to try and stick to the partbooks as much as possible and not move people around from line to line in order to keep a more consistent choral tone. By doing this, you sometimes end up with lower voices singing higher in their register, which, to my ears, is more exciting, particularly as Monteverdi often sets the text in that way. I took the decision therefore to blend low tenors with high baritones, low baritones with basses, high tenors with countertenors etc to create more of the sound of a choir that can sing both high and low within its partbooks.

When we performed this as a concert, I added in liturgical plainchant as I strongly believe that Monteverdi never conceived these as concert pieces but only ever to be heard in the church as part of a service, therefore the Psalms would have been preceded by antiphons relevant to the day. These do affect the Psalm and the context in which they are heard. As we are now removing ourselves by one step and presenting the music as a CD it feels more appropriate to give you Monteverdi’s Psalms and Motets unframed by chant. However, the Magnificat is presented with the same two antiphon substitutes that we had in the concerts. The music for this is the wonderful motet Exultent caeli written by Monteverdi in Venice about 13 years after the Vespers, and a violin sonata of Giovanni Battista Fontana who was employed at St. Marks at that time. We have included these not just because the music is wonderful but because the motet fitted the context of the service (Annunciation) and because we know that instrumental sonatas were often used in Mass services to draw the congregation together in faith at the elevation of the host. I like to think that the Magnificat is just such a focal point of the Vespers service and so I included it after the Magnificat for the same reason.

One must listen and engage with Monteverdi’s music. He writes so brilliantly for the text he’s been given. It’s true in his operas and particularly true in these pieces. I would urge you to read the Psalms first, either as an act of faith or to appreciate them as poetry. Then listen to how Monteverdi interprets them. From the warlike moments in Dixit Dominus to the blatant sarcasm in Nisi Dominus and all the joy, love, fury and exultation in between, the Vespers should leave you breathless and enriched.

Robert Howarth 2010

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