This is the fourth and most recent in the landmark series of Monteverdi's sacred music from The King's Consort and Robert King on Hyperion. Like the others, you are struck from the very first bars by a dedication to detail, immense depth in the musicianship, and a drive towards expression which is both dignified and vibrant. Add to this a superb recording (in the church of St. Jude-on-the-Hill just outside London – though in 2004), a clear set of liner notes with the text in the original Latin and English, French and German, a nice alternation between predominantly choral and then solo items, and you have a CD which can be unhesitatingly recommended. Indeed, if you are minded to gather all the sacred works of Monteverdi performed by essentially the same forces (Nicholas Mulroy is the high tenor on Volume I; Volume II has fewer soloists), this is the set to go for, although the future of this project now seems uncertain and the likelihood that the other half dozen or so projected CDs in the series will ever be recorded and released is unfortunately very slim as there are now no current plans to record any further Monteverdi by this lineup.
Even most music lovers who are not early and Baroque devotees will have at least a passing knowledge of the Vespers of 1610, actually written in and for Mantua before Monteverdi moved to Venice. If that's all you know, then you'll be surprised by some of the more intimate works here, and by their intense nature. Which is not to say that it's not spectacular, melodic and highly wrought music. Indeed the Laetatus sum that begins the disc has the ostinato, the insistence and the alternation of surging soli, players and tutti that are so characteristic of Monteverdi's veiled rhetorical style. But the way King takes the tempi, controls the entrances and manages the counterpoint, not to mention the dynamic of the brass, emphasizing the forward movement, bespeaks an engagement with the musical purpose that is anything but showy. That's chiefly because these players let the movement unfold and let it speak for itself. Listen to the way each singer holds his or her lines against the triple time motifs so loved by Monteverdi. In the next piece, though, Salve Regina (tr.2; there is a second, tr.4) almost every trace of public declaration is transformed into a highly personal, meditative exploration of supplication and devotion. In a style familiar to Caccini's, the longing, aching emotions are communicated with restraint – as in the chiaroscuro paintings of the period. Like looking into a deep, dark cave lit by a blazing fire.
The music on this CD is not from any one collection of the composer's. Mostly motets, everything was published, variously, by anthologists in Venice, Italy and abroad between 1615 and 1651 as well as by Alessandro Vincenti, whose memorial Messa à quattro voci e salmi appeared in 1650, posthumously. The motets did not necessarily form any fixed part of services, though would have been sung both at certain high-points during the mass and between psalms at vespers. So what is presented here needs follow no order, save that of a pleasing contrast in mood and sound. This is particularly the case with the vocal forces and tempi… the second Salve Regina, for example, seems almost to stand still at times. the concentration is immense, and intensified further by Monteverdi's beloved echo effects, which were such a striking and significant feature of early opera.
So, Yes, there is something of the dramatic in much of this music. But it's drama born of commitment, not tension. Rising and falling sequences and repetition rather than spurious contrasts; although there are surprises – of texture and key. These serve to direct our attention inwards, back into the music itself and the relationship between music and words, rather than excite us as Monteverdi and Gabrieli's famed antiphonal techniques may superficially do.
Nor are color and life lacking, though it's likely to be the pure beauty of the singing that leaves the deepest and most lasting impression. The lovely, lucid lines of James Gilchrist in the Exulta, filia Sion (tr.9), for example, have to be heard to be appreciated. Highly idiomatic because it suggests, rather than displays, an awareness of what Monteverdi knew was in his very soul and finds a way to share, rather than expose, such intimacy with a listener in such a way that they will get the most from it if receptive; and wonder why they are not receptive if they are not – merely because of the persuasiveness of the performance.
Here is a CD, then, that both carries forward the tradition started by the first three releases in the series, and propels the enterprise not only towards the top of the list of any Monteverdi aficionado, but also of anyone who wants to hear beautiful music which was both innovative and safe, popular, sought-after performed almost to perfection. Again, recommended without hesitation.
Copyright © 2007, Mark Sealey