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CD Review

Claudio Monteverdi

Vespri Solenni Per La Festa Di San Marco

  • Selections from Vespers (1610)
  • Selections from Selva Morale (1640)
  • Bonus DVD:
  • L'umano e il suo divino (The Human and the Divine), Alessandrini conducts Monteverdi, A film by Claudio Rufa
Concerto Italiano/Rinaldo Alessandrini
Naïve OP30557
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This is a splendid performance of Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers.

If anyone can bring something new and exciting to the iconic work, Rinaldo Alessandrini with his Concerto Italiano can. The Vespri Solenni per La Festa di San Marco may have been written by Monteverdi as a demonstration of his skills in support of his attempts – successful – to move to the more prestigious post of Maestro di Cappella at San Marco, Venice, in 1613. He was tired of the provincialism of the Mantovan court, and of being underpaid; and perhaps of the swamps, humidity and mosquitoes.

Alessandrini successfully marries two qualities of the collection of 20 individual (yet united) sacred works which make up the Vespers; they last a full 80 minutes on this recording.

The first of these musical qualities brings out the dignity, splendor and richly-colored nature of the work… a slower-than-usual tempo, and sonorous deep brass, considered, studied yet deft, uplifting singing from all of the soloists. Comparisons to the immensity of the San Marco basilica aside, listeners will still have the impression of Monteverdi's well-wrought architecture evoked by Alessandrini. His sense of the Vespers' structure, and of the inevitability as it moves through its phases, is clear and pleasing. He lets tempi and phrasing make their impact, not volume.

The second quality is subtler. The Vespers are perhaps best known to us as a highly rhetorical emblem of the culmination of the Italian Renaissance and inception of the Baroque. Yet here Alessandrini and his forces have conferred upon it a sense of how it might have sounded at the time – without the aura of a "special performance"; it's a functional act of worship. This realism is never pedestrian or mundane. Yet it is particularly forceful: we feel that we are there next to the music-making, rather than being presented with some sort of monument. But this is not a "stripped down" performance, designed to be "gritty" or devoid of delight by minimizing the work's profundity.

Concerto Italiano and their harpsichordist director Rinaldo Alessandrini celebrate 30 years this year: they made their debut in Rome with Cavalli's La Calisto in 1984. Despite numerous awards, otherwise successful recordings and a strong following and even stronger reputation, there is nothing boastful or overblown in this recording. Indeed, there's almost a note of humility in the way they have the music unfold. This is perhaps best exemplified in the way in which there are few spuriously-created high-points; yet no mere transitions. Although there are, as said, 20 separate "numbers", Alessandrini has successfully made them all work together as a whole.

But it's not a symphonic construction. Even though the addition of instruments to attain rich polychorality was new in Venice (it has already been achieved in Rome, but with choirs only), Alessandrini never attempts to thrust either vocal or instrumental sound at the listener. The result is that one is constantly aware of the substance of Monteverdi's text and melody, of the harmonies and relevance the ones to the others; and not of a mere spectacle.

Yet there is nothing spare or slim in this performance. Its impact is as full as are the intricacies of the contrapuntal, and confessionally rhetorical writing. The usually stunning end of the "Magnificat á 8" at the end of the entire Vespers, for instance, is as pleasing here as in any other recording. But it's not over-rhetorical or unnecessarily dramatic. Nor, for that matter, is this interpretation an attempt at wry understatement. In those senses it seems very genuine, authentic.

In support of this approach there is an evenness of dynamic and tempo. Abandoning the dubious idea of "high points", Alessandrini's conception emphasizes the sense of Monteverdi's having written a work whose devotional impact is derived from consistency as much as from the amazingly inventive melodic and harmonic new world, which it is. There are (good) surprises in the performers' discrimination between one passage and the next (from the opening "Selva Morale", the "Dixit Dominus" Psalm 109 [tr.3], for instance). Its dialog has almost operatic tones – though operatic because of the import of the text, not the texture, or any dubious and unnecessary rhetoric.

Moreover, Alessandrini chose to record the Vespers in the church of Santa Barbara in Mantua. Further, he did not site the choirs in that church's two galleries: he feels that such an emphasis on spatiality is appropriate when you are there. Though in a recording, it detracts from the many other impacts which Monteverdi makes – without aids. The result is highly satisfying. The music takes all our attention. The acoustic is interesting and full enough to support the composer's grand design.

With the single CD comes a film by Claudio Rufa on DVD lasting 50 minutes, "L'umano e il suo divino, Alessandrini Dirige Monteverdi" ("The human and its divine, Alessandrini directs Monteverdi"). It's a compelling documentary with subtitled commentary in English, Italian and French. It examines the enterprise of recording the work in the church at Mantua with a relatively detailed examinations of how the Vespers suited the acoustic, layout and architecture of that church. There are also sequences recreating relevant contemporary meals, musicians and researchers in informal but focused discussions of the relationship between voice and instruments (and between instruments, and instrument sections) that Monteverdi was aiming for and the context of the work; and long sequences of the musicians performing.

Alessandrini's expertise, vision, courage and insight into the mind and spirit of Monteverdi set this recording apart from the many dozen otherwise available. He has managed to infuse his performance with a modern sensibility. The interpretative specifics (ornamentation, instrumentation, balance and pace) are nevertheless faithful to Monteverdi's ambitions and success with this glorious work. Turning his back on the spuriously spectacular and rhetorical, Alessandrini and his musicians have produced what successfully melds modesty with authority.

If he does nothing else, Alessandrini demonstrates that the Monteverdi Vespers are as amenable of multiple interpretations as any other work. And that it's a work that can be truly loved – on a scale analogous to that intimacy with which one loves a Mozart sonata or an Elgar symphony. The booklet contains brief notes and the text in French, Latin and Biblical English. This CD and DVD not only represent good value for money, but – given the outstanding level of research, understanding and musicianship of Alessandrini and his forces, who share his conception – should immediately find a place on the shelves of any lover of this work, no matter how many other recordings s/he may already have. It is one to return to.

Copyright © 2014, Mark Sealey