21 Dec 2006


The collection of sacred compositions published by Claudio Monteverdi in Venice in 1610 with a Latin title of jaw-breaking length (in which vesperae is only the tenth word) has attained the sort of elevated status granted to but a few works, which stand so high that the rest of the landscape is almost invisible from their peaks, or to put it in plainer language, a music-lover may have heard or heard of the Vespers without knowing any of the composer’s other works, nor those of his contemporaries (rather like the Four Seasons, or The Sorcerer’s Apprentice). There are over two dozen recordings of the work on the market at this writing.

Even the connoisseur may not have a good sense of the context of the work in 1610, nor indeed of its place in Monteverdi’s production. It was the first of only two collections of music for the church published during the composer’s lifetime, and one can see it as an elaborate poke in the eye for Monteverdi’s critic Artusi, who attacked (not without some justification, indeed) Monteverdi’s supposed incompetence as a contrapuntist, as manifest in the latter’s 4th and 5th books of madrigals, published in 1603 and 1605, respectively. Though Monteverdi had studied composition with Ingegneri in Cremona, he was employed in Mantua as an instrumentalist, with a background in improvised dance music, and not as a singer. From Artusi’s point of view, the licenses permitted a string band had made their way into Monteverdi’s vocal works, where they were solecisms.

And so the first work mentioned in that Latin title is not the Vespers, but the mass in six parts In illo tempore, based on a motet by Gombert from fifty years earlier. Monteverdi, who prints the motives which he has taken from Gombert at the beginning of the mass in the partbooks, obviously wants to show that he has a mastery of the craft of composition as it was done “in those days” (the literal meaning of the title of the motet). This task being accomplished, the remaining works — the music for Vespers, with psalm settings and vocal concerti — show how Monteverdi could produce a sacred music which would combine traditional aspects (the use of the chanted psalm tone) with techniques from his years as an instrumentalist.

I can't claim to have heard all the rival claimants, but from what I have heard hear I can state that the recording by King and his collaborators must certainly stand out as one of the notable recordings of 2006, a thoroughly satisfying performance which brings this masterwork to vibrant life, combining deep resonance with ringing clarity, every moment, every phrase breathing as it should, the vocal soloists first-rate, the sounds of the winds and strings vital, the chorus beautifully blended and in tune. I wanted to be there in the hall to hear this music performed live, I wanted to be part of this sound. This recording is that good. Plaudits not only to the musicians, but to the recording technicians who made this sound possible.


Tom Moore