Monteverdi: Selva morale e spirituale

Balthasar Neumman Choir & Ensemble, Pablo Heras-Casado
harmonia mundi HMM 902355

The selection from Monteverdi’s late collection Selva morale e spirituali  of 1640 made for this CD is designed to represent the different styles and scale of the works in this late published collection. From the pool of 16 able singers either single voices or sometimes two on a line are joined by doubling instruments for the larger-scaled items. Paris of violins and cornetti with four trombones, two gambas, a violone and lutes, organ and harpsichord all find a place in the tuttis. Cornetti are used in place of the violini in Laudate pueri Dominum primo  to good effect, but the constant use of a string bass even when there is just a single voice as in Jubilet tota civitas  often seems too much – this isn’t a Baroque basso continuo.

As so often, the male-voice numbers, like the three-voice Salve Regina, fare best vocally. Pairs of tenors sing neatly together, but I am less convinced by the pairs of sopranos in (for example) Laudate Dominum terzo, where the soprano roulades alternate with the homophonic lower voices. The sopranos are too operatic for my liking, and a sharp tonal contrast to the pair of cornetti, used in place of violins in Ut queant laxis. A curious effect is given by adding a dulcian to the bass for the running quavers in just measures 34 to 42, (as was the fashion in the running bass in Laetatus sum  in the 1610 Vespers in former years), and an over-enthusiastic plucker was intrusive in the ethereal last six measures where the sopranos resolve to a single G. Some of this fine music is over-egged: less is often more, when it is tempting to use your whole batterie de cuisine.

The diction is good, and words are projected well, even when the voices are doubled by trombones as in the ‘Crucifixus’, and the sopranos fare better in the ‘Et resurrexit’ with a pair of violins. The CD ends with a vigorous performance of the Magnificat primo  using (properly) just eight singers but a large complement of doubling instruments, with the much-reinforced bass line. Rhythmically it is exciting and dramatic under their guest conductor, Pablo Heras-Casado, rather than their regular director.

The pitch seems to be around 464, but there is no information on the editions, the instruments or where the recording took place. In many ways, I prefer the old recording of much of this music by Andrew Parrott and the Taverner players from the early 1980s, or the more recent complete one on three CDs by The Sixteen under Harry Christophers.

David Stancliffe

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