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Claudio Monteverdi: Vespro della beata vergine (1610)
Sandra Simon (Cantus), Jennifer Ellis Kampani (Sextus), Meg Bragle (Altus), Ian Honeyman (Tenor), Gareth Morrell (Quintus), Jeffrey Strauss (Bassus), Michael McMurray (Septimus), John Buffett (Sonata sopra Sancta Maria, treble), Jeffrey Strauss, Gareth Morrell (Antiphons)
Apollo’s Fire – The Cleveland Baroque Orchestra – on period instruments – with Apollo’s Singers, Jeannette Sorrell (conductor)
Recorded in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (November 1998) – 90’
2 CDs Ref. # AVIE Records AV2206 – Booklet notes in English, French and German – Latin libretto with English translation

The June 2010 edition of Gramophone magazine reviewed a selection of 29 recordings of Monteverdi’s Vespers of the Blessed Virgin released between 1966 and 2007. This was not one of them. But it should have been. The only American entry on the list was by Martin Pearlman and the Boston Baroque from 1997. According to Gramophone, it featured "unremarkable soloists, untidy ensemble and a rather hollow recorded sound". Jeannette Sorrell and her Cleveland Baroque Orchestra, Apollo’s Fire, have reissued a remixed version of their 1999 release to help celebrate the 400th anniversary of the publication of this seminal work. It is too bad Gramophone didn’t include it – for it would have been a solid contender for "the top choice".

It is often believed that the Vespers were written specifically for St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, where Monteverdi became music director in 1613 (although it certainly may have helped). However, Sorrell makes a convincing case in her liner notes for its composition to celebrate the marriage of Prince Francesco of the Gonzaga family in 1608. This would have been held at the medium-sized Mantua church of St Anthony. Nor does she believe that it would have been suitable for the even smaller Gonzaga ducal chapel. She therefore takes a middle-of-the-road approach between the use of larger and smaller scale musical forces. (Their press release, oddly, notes that it was "intended for a cathedral acoustic".)

Sorrell’s approach works superbly – an excellent compromise between the two versions I own – John Eliot Gardiner’s "massive", Handelesque forces used for his live 1989 recording in St Mark’s Basilica, and Paul McCreesh’s one-to-a-part reading of 2006. Sorrell’s 18 singers and 19 instrumentalists are just right to convey the revolutionary work’s contrasting dynamics, ranging from the sweetest pianissimos of the plainsong chant to the exuberant, soaring Glorias . Apollo’s Fire succeeds exquisitely in conveying the tension and contrasts of flamboyant and imaginative counterpoint imposed on the former medieval fixed psalm tones.

Myriad arrangements and compilations of the Vespers have been recorded for varying orchestral and vocal forces. Besides the five chant-based, polyphonic psalm settings, hymn, sonata, four sacred concerti (or motets) and a Magnificat, Sorrell also includes six antiphons (a phrase sung by one choir in reply to another) which establish the tonality of the subsequent psalms as well as the Magnificat. These she takes from the feasts ofMary of the Snow and the Assumption.

From the opening "Versicle & Response: Deus in adjutorium" to the concluding Amen of the Magnificat this recording is top notch. The singers’ enunciation is impeccable and they give just interpretation to the text. They are always in equal partnership with the instrumentalists and harmonic blending of the two is flawless. The range of contrasts is handsomely conveyed – from the ethereal resonance of the antiphon "Virgo prudentissima" (Jeffrey Strauss and male chorus) to the joyful, driving rhythm of Psalm 147, "Lauda Jerusalem". The urgently paced and rhythmic drive of Psalm 126, "Nisi Dominus" perfectly illustrates why this ensemble is called Apollo’s Fire!

The masterful handling of the band’s authentic instruments dazzles, from the silken strings of the viola da gamba, to the honey-colored tones of the cornettos and sackbuts. This is particularly impressive in the warmly realised Sonata sopra Sancta Maria where the treble John Buffett also gives a performance of haunting beauty.

All members of the choir, from which most of the soloists are drawn, provide sensitive and ardent support. The recorded sound is true and natural.

Incidentally, Apollo’s Fire concluded their European debut tour at London’s Wigmore Hall on November 30, and the BBC was on site. Although they did not perform the Vespers on this tour, I still wish I had been there!

I note only to be helpful for the next printing that in two places on the liner notes, "Sancta Maria" is written as "Santa Maria".

Earl Arthur Love




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