This year, 2010, is of course the 400th anniversary of Monteverdi's Vespers of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It's no surprise that it's inspired several recordings of the work. One that's claimed more than an expected share of headlines is that by Seraphic Fire and the Western Michigan University Chorale, conducted by Patrick Dupré Quigley. Barely a week after being made available on iTunes, it found itself in the "Top Ten". That's all remarkable because the Miami-based professional choir of just seven years' standing is so little known; and because the musicians (who are actually based throughout the United States, flying to Miami for rehearsals and performances) released this CD themselves. The recording is the result of a grant of $25,000 which they received a couple of years ago.
Quigley uses just four instruments (lute, theorbo, violone and chamber organ) instead of the mass forces often employed in an effort to confer grandeur on a(n already) grand, grand piece. This is an artistic, not a financial, decision. It works very well. Finding a suitable recording location was also in keeping with the spirit of enterprise that pervades this project. Eventually Quigley and Dr. James Bass, former director of choral studies at Western Michigan University, or WMU) settled on the stone chapel of the Holy Family on the former campus of Nazareth College at WMU.
Although it's often thought that Monteverdi wrote the Vespers for the large spaces of the Basilica of San Marco in Venice (indeed, the work may well have been intended for the church eventually; particularly as an "audition piece" as the composer was hoping for the post there), it was in fact written and first performed at much more modest rooms in Mantua, where Monteverdi was still employed by the Gonzaga duchy. More enterprise, and a stroke of luck: although an established producer, Peter Rutenberg from Los Angeles, had been engaged to oversee the recording, none of the major labels which Quigley and Bass approached was prepared to gamble on little-known performers supported by an ensemble of 41 college singers. But iTunes, Facebook and America's National Public Radio did the rest. So the vision, determination and tenacity of all involved is certainly to be admired. Can the same be said of the quality of their performance and recording?
By and large, Yes. When you listen to the glorious opening Domine ad adiuvandum you'll be struck by several things. Perhaps oddly, first by the comparatively low register of the sound… tenors and basses and perhaps the violone and chamber organ's prominence seem to be the most audible pitches. This continues throughout and may be a function of the second characteristic of the recording: an uncommon lack of resonance, or of much sense of space at all. This intimacy is intentional and allows us to hear the strength of Monteverdi's devotional message afresh. Spectacle very definitely takes second place to an elegantly and tightly-focused singing (and playing) style. This is the third characteristic that defines Seraphic Fire's performance. Each syllable is carefully articulated, each musical phrase seems to have been thought about many times before it's here committed.
True, there are to be heard on this CD what we now suspect are not authentic singing styles… minimal vibrato and a glow, or bloom, almost in the style of nineteenth century Romantic opera – listen to the soloist in Nigra sum [tr.3], for example. Somehow, though, the collective and controlled passion which infuses this whole enterprise makes up for such what amount to idiosyncrasies. The instrumental playing is unobtrusive and more than just supportive. It's the iron in re-inforced concrete; not the concrete itself. What's more, the performers – for all their disparate backgrounds and the circumstances under which they came, now work, and have recorded together – are clearly comfortable with their common sound and approach. Again, it might not be too fanciful to think that this is how contemporary musicians and worshippers prepared for the first Vespers four hundred years ago. This ésprit de corps is felt at various times and strikes a welcome note… the quite beautiful and engaging spring in the rhythm of the later part, especially, of the Laudate Pueri [tr. 4], for example.
So, much to enjoy and by which to be inspired in this CD. Not a "pure" interpretation, musicologically. But one that recognizes Monteverdi's style (for all his innovation) as the epilog of the Renaissance, rather than the prolog to the Baroque. Hence the simplicity and directness of Quigley and his forces. The recording's greatest strengths are its intimacy and delight in the delicately immediate – the aforementioned stripping down of numbers to make the Vespers if not quite a "family" affair, then certainly that of a well-knit club. The spontaneous and uninhibited (singers audibly take in breath at certain moments) and technically proficient delivery counts for a lot. As does the extent to which all involved communicate their joy and enthusiasm for the music. Further, there is a remarkable consistency to the singing and playing: on the one hand the climacterics are few but telling; on the other, there is a pleasing dependability to the performance. It's slowly and almost imperceptibly borne in on you that the Vespers really benefit from a level, steady and measured style of delivery and timing. Another example of removing the element of spectacle to favor, instead, more of the music's essence. Very effective.
The booklet that accompanies the CD is accordingly modest… just the text in Latin and English, a brief page setting the scene and welcome details and a couple of photos of Seraphic Fire, Quigley and company. The recording quality is clean and appropriately small-scale. You'd be unlikely to make this your first choice 1610 Vespers. From the nearly 40 recordings currently available that could well be Parrott and the Taverner Consort on Virgin Classics (61662); Savall and La Capella Reial de Catalunya on Alia Vox (9855); McCreesh with the Gabrieli Consort & Players on Archiv Produktion (DG 4776147) or Robert King and the King's Consort on Hyperion (SACDA67531). Nevertheless this is a fresh and vibrant approach carried out with sufficient originality and with noticeable style to justify its success, and definitely a close look by lovers of the work, of Monteverdi for sure, and the delights of choral polyphony more widely.
Copyright © 2010 by Mark Sealey.