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Hyperion Records

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Track(s) taken from CDA67531/2
Recording details: February 2006
St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Ben Turner
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: May 2006
Total duration: 88 minutes 27 seconds

'Despite having heard four wonderful volumes of Monteverdi's sacred music from The King's Consort, and its 2004 Proms performance of the 1610 Vespers, I was still unprepared for the ecstatic consequences of taking seriously at least one aspect of Monteverdi's so-called seconda-pratica—using much freer counterpoint, with an increasing hierarchy of voices: that the word is mistress of the music. And what ecstasy!' (Gramophone)

'The majesty and contrapuntal wizardy of this fabulous work never fail to astonish and this is a very fine performance, making effective use of the spatial effects that are an integral part of the music's architecture … the choir of the King's Consort sing with virtuosic skill and purity of articulation' (The Sunday Telegraph)

'It is the motets that are the crowning glory, especially James Gilchrist's gorgeously sensuous Nigra sum. His impassioned, full-throated singing, and skillful use of pauses, rubato and sudden pianissimos, turn the piece into a wonderfully spontaneous outpouring of erotic emotion' (The Daily Telegraph)

'This recording richly deserves a sheaf of awards. One for the astonishing speed of the turnaround between recording and release—just a couple of months. A second for bringing us the 1610 collection complete. A third for John Whenham's absolutely enthralling booklet essay. A fourth to all the many hundreds of people who donated to Hyperion's Appeal for Recording Funds in 2005, which made this recording possible. And a final fifth accolade to all the King's men (and women) who singly and severally know Monteverdi well enough not to have to over-sell him to unlock the music's magnificence' (International Record Review)

'Wonderful music; wonderful performances. Justice has been done to Monteverdi' (The Times)

'Any survey of the sheerly magnificent on CD over the past year will have to begin with Robert King's astounding new account of the Monteverdi Vespers on Hyperion, which is quite the most wonderful noise to come my way in years … solo and choral singing and the instrumental playing all attain the exceptional quality one has long come to expect with the conductor … unquestionably a major addition to the Vespers discography' (Fanfare, USA)

'Added to the 'list of things to do before you die' should be 'hearing Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers in as good a recording as you can find'. This Monteverdi is truly mind-blowing. Vespers virgins need seek no further, and serious collectors are advised not to ignore what may prove to be more than one reviewer's 'disc of the year'' (MusicWeb International)

'I can only join the label in saying 'thank you' to the many contributors who sent in funds, and I urge listeners everywhere to help the investment pay off by purchasing this set without delay. It's gorgeous and you'll love it, even if you already own other versions of this extraordinary work' (ClassicsToday.com)

'Même en ayant d'autres (bonnes) versions en mémoire, celle-ci se situe parmi les toutes meilleures' (ResMusica.com, France)

Vespers
composer
1610
author of text
various Psalms and other liturgical texts

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Over the past seventy years, since its first performance in modern times, Monteverdi’s ‘Vespers of the Blessed Virgin’, first published in 1610, has become one of the cornerstones of the classical repertoire. Its music, magnificent and sonorous, sensuous and rhythmically thrilling, holds an immediate appeal, and Monteverdi’s use of plainsong as the basis for all the Psalm settings, the exquisite Hymn Ave maris stella and the grand Magnificat lend the Vespers a compelling sense of consistency and purpose. However, Monteverdi himself may not have expected to hear the Vespers sung as a complete ‘work’; indeed, there is little evidence that any of its music was actually performed during his lifetime.

Monteverdi’s 1610 publication, produced while he was choirmaster to Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua in northern Italy, was intended as a compendium for use by the choirmasters of court chapels and those great churches like St Mark’s, Venice, or St Peter’s, Rome, which had a permanent staff of expert singers and could call upon the necessary instrumental forces. Choirmasters would have chosen as many or as few of the settings as they needed, or the forces at their disposal could manage, and Monteverdi provided in his publication not only Vesper Psalms, motets and Magnificat settings, but also a Mass for six voices—all the music, in fact, needed for the services of a feast day of the Blessed Virgin Mary. To make the book more saleable, Monteverdi also made provision for the Vespers music to be performed with organ alone on those occasions when other instruments were not available. So, for example, the opening response ‘Domine, ad adiuvandum’, which we are used to hearing with the brilliant instrumental accompaniment developed from the Toccata which opened Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo (1607), also appears in the 1610 book in a simple version where the singers chant the text to organ accompaniment. Similarly, Monteverdi provided two settings of the Magnificat—one for seven voices with strings, wind and brass instruments as well as organ, the other for six voices and organ alone. It is fascinating to compare the two: although we cannot be certain in which order they were written, it is likely that the seven-voice version is a reworking of the material of the six-voice version, rather than the other way round.

The evening service of Vespers was celebrated twice on each feast day: once on the eve of the feast—the more important celebration, for which elaborate settings like Monteverdi’s would have been most appropriate—and once on the day itself. The service began with a versicle and response, followed by five Psalms, each prefaced and followed by an antiphon appropriate to the feast day, the texts of which provided a specifically Christian frame for the Old Testament Psalm. The Psalms were followed by a short Bible reading, a Hymn, a further versicle and response, the Magnificat (the canticle of the Virgin Mary, which was sung at all celebrations of Vespers), and concluding prayers. Monteverdi provides settings of all the major items; the remainder of the service would have been sung to plainsong.

Monteverdi’s Psalm settings take as their basis a simple technique: each verse of the Psalm is sung to the same plainsong phrase—the Psalm tone—and round it the composer wraps a web of polyphony. What is extraordinary, however, is the sheer range of invention that Monteverdi brings to this technique, from the alternation of two basic textures in Dixit Dominus, through settings like Laudate pueri in which he draws on his experience as a madrigalist to provide images that match the meaning of the text, to Laetatus sum, a set of variations on three different bass lines, and the Magnificat, in which each verse is treated at length in textures ranging from a simple opening to a verse like ‘Deposuit potentes’ with echo duets for instruments. The elaborate treatment of the Magnificat reflects its place as the climax (though not the end) of Vespers, during which the altar would have been censed.

By Monteverdi’s day the custom had grown up of singing motets or playing instrumental pieces between the Psalms (not, as was once thought, in place of the repeated antiphon). In his 1610 publication Monteverdi provided four motets, three of which have clear Marian associations, and one which is of a more general devotional nature. This is the unforgettable Duo Seraphim, which paints a picture of seraphs singing across the vastness of heaven in a manner which, appropriately for angels, represents the most elaborate singing style of the early seventeenth century. In addition to the motets, Monteverdi also included the glorious Sonata sopra Sancta Maria, a large-scale instrumental work with a superimposed vocal petition ‘Holy Mary, pray for us’.

We do not know to what extent Monteverdi was involved in producing church music for Mantua before 1610, though as early as 1595 he had acted as choirmaster to Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga during a military expedition against the Turks, providing both secular and sacred music for the duke and his followers. He probably continued to produce church music thereafter for use in the smaller chapels of the palace at Mantua, or for occasions when the court worshipped elsewhere; he was, however, never in charge of the ducal chapel of Santa Barbara, which had its own musical establishment. All his publications before 1610 were of secular music—madrigals and the opera Orfeo—and he had built a formidable reputation as a member of the musical avant-garde. By about 1608, however, we know that he was growing dissatisfied with his employment at Mantua, in particular with the relentless demands placed upon him to produce entertainment music, and that he was looking round for a new post. It is possible, therefore, that he prepared the 1610 publication specifically to demonstrate that he was worthy of employment in a major church, rather than as a court musician. In this respect it is significant that he dedicated the volume to the pope and went to Rome in person to present a copy, taking the opportunity while there to mix in the company of well-placed music-loving cardinals.

The idea of the 1610 volume as a musical ‘calling card’ goes some way to explaining the nature of its contents. We first hear of Monteverdi’s work on the book in a letter of 16 July 1610 written to Cardinal Ferdinando Gonzaga by Monteverdi’s assistant at Mantua, Don Bassano Cassola:

Monteverdi is having printed an a cappella Mass for six voices [the product] of great study and effort, he being obliged to handle continually, in every note through all the parts, building up more and more, the eight points of imitation [actually ten] which are in Gombert’s motet ‘In illo tempore’ and together with it he is also having printed some psalms of the Vespers of the Madonna with various and different manners of invention and harmony, and all on a cantus firmus, with the idea of coming to Rome this autumn to dedicate them to His Holiness.

Monteverdi’s 1610 Mass—musical settings of texts for the ritual re-enactment of the Last Supper which lies at the heart of the Catholic liturgy—was designed, then, to demonstrate that he was a serious composer capable of writing the most learned music in a conservative style designed to appeal to a Counter-Reformation papacy and qualifying him to seek employment at a major Roman church. Even the Vespers settings, characterized by virtuosity and opulence, have a learned aspect in being based upon plainsongs.

Although Monteverdi did not obtain employment in Rome, as he may have hoped, the 1610 publication stood him in good stead when, in 1613, he applied for the post of choirmaster of St Mark’s, Venice. The report on his audition, for which he directed a Mass—perhaps the 1610 setting—mentions the ‘quality and virtue [of] his works which are found in print’ even before expressing satisfaction with his performance. It is likely, then, that Monteverdi intended his 1610 book to be admired and read as a whole, and this provides us with an historical justification for recording the music of the publication in its entirety and, indeed, for performing the Vespers music as a concert work. The chief justification, though, lies in the music itself, which speaks to us directly and powerfully across the four centuries since it was created.

from notes by John Whenham © 2006

Other albums featuring this work
'Monteverdi: Vespers' (SACDA67531/2)
Monteverdi: Vespers
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