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Claudio Monteverdi Vespers of 1610

Raphaël Pichon's new performance of Claudio Monteverdi Vespers of 1610

Is this the "sexiest" liturgical music ever written?

S. Lachterman

Recording: Claudio Monteverdi, Vespro della Beata Virgine 1610.

Label: Harmonia Mundi

Raphaël Pichon's effervescent Vespers
A lively (sexy?) performance of Monteverdi's sacred masterpiece


Raphaël Pichon, Ensemble Pygmalion, Céline Scheen, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, Etienne Bazola, Lucile Richardot, Renaud Brès, Zachary Wilder, Nicolas Brooymans, Perrine Devillers, Adrien Mabire, Marouan Mankar-Bennis, Pierre Gallon

Is it blasphemy to term Monteverdi’s Vespro 1610 as extremely “sexy” music? Perhaps that is not its most important aesthetic. More to the point, It is a divine work of inestimable beauty and power, easily the greatest work for chorus, soloist, and instruments prior to Bach’s great B Minor Mass. Raphaël Pichon and his brilliant Pygmalion Ensemble have just chimed in with a reading that, of course, is a bit set apart from the competition. My original exposure, like many in my generation, Monteverdi’s Vespro, was the great Jürgen Jürgens performance on Telefunken. This performance with period instruments as well as multiple vocal and instrumental ensembles, had multiple lead talents, including Gustav Leonhardt and Nikolas Harnoncourt, in an inspired collaboration. It was an early music “love-fest” and illuminated Monteverdi’s great music in a way never before imagined. I also heard the same group’s interpretation live, as well. For me, it set the benchmark.

Over the years there have been many wonderful performances: more similar than different. Monteverdi has been lucky in the past few decades. Conductors instinctively know how this music should be unraveled, and each performance revels in the lush counterpoint, euphoric rhythms, polychoral effects, and the profound melodic-harmonic world that is infused with the both the stile antico and stile moderno practices of seventeenth-century Italy.

Pichon’s interpretations are always, to my sensibility, worth a listen. He’s a bit of an extremist and oscillates between overly quick and overly slow tempi, but his singers are perfect, and the instrumental ensemble is dazzling. The complaint is one of too much decorative fizz: after a while, I’d like to shoot the cornetist who never ceased being high-strung. The thing about Baroque ornamentation and figuration is that taste is the final arbiter in how much frilled decoration one should include. Too much ornamentation belies the need for variety just as repeated stepwise intervals, come è scritto, become overly stolid. Actually, “baroque” is sometimes used as a pejorative meaning “grotesque.” Perhaps one should quote those familiar words ascribed to Joseph II on hearing Mozart’s opera and say the cornetto plays “too many notes.”

In spite of this over-indulgence in ornamentation, and some extremes of tempi, the performance is rousing and a great excuse to take a walk with headphones and step lively to these great psalm settings. My favorite is Lauda Jerulsalem, one of the most complex exchanges of two choirs with cantus. It is irrepressible in its energy and gives angelic delight in the playful syncopations and hemiolas. It is a sort of Monteverdi “hoedown” and makes one want to dance. Pichon plays it in the high key avoided by many other performances. Philippe Herreweghe’s two earlier performances transpose this movement down to a more comfortable lower register. Here, Pichon’s group really shines: the tempo compels the singers to “ha ha” the melismas perhaps a bit too much for some. I’d say that this fleet tempo might be intended: the music should make one smile and laugh.

The Sicut erat of the Magnificat is oddly clotted sounding and the architectural climaxing is regrettably diminished here. Pichon also, true to the doxology, has the opening Deus in adiutorium repeated with a differing text. Personally, I think Monteverdi intended the ostentatious instrumentation of the Sancta Maria balance out the opening Deus. So, I could live without Pichon’s reprise (and more fluttering flitter from the cornetti).

Overall, this Vespro is a keeper and I find myself listening to it more often. It sits with my other favorites: The Jürgen Jürgens on Das Alte Werk; the three Herreweghe recordings. (Harmonia Mundi and Phi), as well as Frieder Bernius’s eloquent and underrated reading on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi.

A much recommended disc.


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