Monteverdi: Vespers 1610

Dunedin Consort, His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts, John Butt
94:00
Linn Records CKD569

We were fortunate enough to receive two copies of this recording, so asked Brian Robins and  David Stancliffe to share their impressions. They are given below in the order we received them. The star review at the foot is an amalgamation – whereas Brian gave the performance four stars, David awarded six! In the other categories, there were unanimous with fives across the board.

As an admirer of John Butt’s performances of Bach’s choral works, I approached his new recording of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers settings with considerable interest and anticipation. That the results seem to me less satisfying than his Bach is probably down to my conclusions falling mostly into the realms of subjective observations rather than outright criticism.

Readers familiar with Butt’s one-per-part Bach will not be surprised to learn that he adopts a similar policy with Vespers. That is to say a single voice is allotted to each of Monteverdi’s two 5-part vocal choirs, making a total of ten singers, all of whom are employed in the works marked for voices and substantial instrument forces such as the opening 6-part ‘Deus in adiutorium’ or all ten voices like ‘Nisi Dominus’, scored for two 5-part choirs and continuo. Given the outstandingly tuned singing and ensemble, the result is to expose Monteverdi’s often dazzling counterpoint in rare detail and clarity, especially given some slower than usual tempos, a topic to which I’ll return. There are, however, some unconvincing solutions, in particular Butt’s odd decision to allot both his sopranos (Joanne Lunn and Esther Brazil) to the ‘Sonata sopra Sancta Maria’, which is clearly marked Cantus in the King’s Music score he employs and obviously intended for a solo soprano. It doesn’t work with two singers, especially given that the diction is poor.

Other practical points. Given that there is no record of a complete performance in Monteverdi’s time Butt has not attempted to place the Monteverdi’s psalm settings in a liturgical context. Although considerable controversy surrounds questions of performance practice in relation to the 1610 Vespers, it now seems generally accepted that the pitch should be something in excess of standard modern pitch A=440, Butt choosing A=466, a semi-tone above. That works well with the high clefs (‘chiavette’) of ‘Lauda Jerusalem’ and Magnificat, their 4th downward transposition now accepted by most scholars. Perhaps more controversial will be Butt’s use of proportional tempos within the larger two-part tactus beat, especially as it appears to account for some of the slow tempos mentioned above. I felt especially aware of this in ‘Audi coelum’ (over which Butt takes 9:17 as against the 7:30 of Andrew Parrott in his path-breaking 1984 EMI recording) and hymn setting ‘Ave Maris Stella’, which to my mind drags. Elsewhere Butt’s use of tactus allows a flexibility that can work extremely well, as in ‘Nigra sum’, splendidly sung by Nicholas Mulroy with great intensity, and ‘Duo Seraphim’ for three tenors (Matthew Long, Joshua Ellicott and Mulroy), where the sense of wonder in the Trinity is most effectively evoked. It is in fact in the vocal concertos featuring male voices that the performance is for me at its most effective, since while the pure voices of sopranos in, say, ‘Pulchra es’ are beautifully produced, it is a virginal purity lacking any hint of the erotic that seems too Anglo-Saxon for this colourful Mediterranean music. This applies, too, to the larger-scale pieces, which sound just that touch too polite, too lacking that feeling of being on the edge that should be conveyed by this at times outrageously experimental music. The singing itself is invariably good, with ornamentation mostly capably executed, while the instrumental playing, which features the excellent His Majesties Sagbutts and Cornetts in addition to the Dunedin Consort is first rate. Although this is music that allows for considerable choice when it comes to continuo instruments, I’m not at all convinced by the harp in ‘Laetatus sum’.

To summarize it would be fair to say that I admire the performance more than I am excited by it. Others will surely disagree and no one should be in any doubt that it is a finely conceived and splendidly executed achievement.

Brian Robins


This is a first-rate recording, and I should say at the start that the questions I raise have nothing to do with the quality of the performers or their fine musicianship. This recording joins the groundbreaking one of Andrew Parrott and the Taverner Consort in 1983, the burstingly, zingy one of Christine Pluhar and L’Arpeggiata from 2010 and the utterly different recent version by La Compagnia del Madrigale under Giuseppe Maletto released this year by Glossa as those in the superlative bracket.

The first thing you need to come to grips with in preparing a performance of the Monteverdi Vespers is to decide what sort of a work it is; and despite there being no evidence of any performance of the complete ‘Vespers’ in Monteverdi’s lifetime, the series of movements that make up what we are nowadays used to hearing, with its extraordinary variety of treatment of the Gregorian psalm chants interspersed with the concerti for a growing number of voices, makes compelling hearing in its own right. I first heard the Vespers live in a performance in Westminster Abbey in October 1959, given by Walter Goehr with a large choir and modern ‘orchestra’ of substantial proportions, and was bowled over. But I have gradually – partly as a result of Parrott’s 1983 recording – changed my own performance practice towards single voices and now find myself in almost complete agreement with what John Butt writes in his perceptive and illuminating notes – especially about using a full complement of ten singers in different combinations, rather than tying each one to a particular part-book.

Interestingly, and unlike his liturgical reconstructions of the Bach Johannespassion  or the Christmas Vespers, Butt eschews others’ attempts to make the movements in Monteverdi’s publication fit some kind of historically reconstructed liturgical frame, and is content to explore the musical inventiveness of the publication as it stands, but without either the In illo tempore  Mass or the six-part Magnificat. His concern for the sonorities means that he never doubles the voices unless Monteverdi’s parts specifically call for it, so, for example, he relies entirely on the colours of each voice to articulate the contrasts between odd and even numbered verses in Dixit Dominus  and Laetatus sum. As a related issue, I am not sure on what principles he has decided to deploy his bassus generalis  players. I sometimes detect a discreet 16’ when I wouldn’t expect it, but there is no doubt that the principale  chorus of the Hauptwerk-generated Italian/Dalmatian organ (and there’s a useful reference to their website in the notes) helps keep the singers’ sound open and clean. When they play, the sounds of the Dunedin’s strings and His Majestys Sagbuts and Cornetts are exceptionally well-blended and beautifully captured in this intelligent and well-produced recording.

So with an instrumental sound formed in the manner of Giovanni Gabrieli’s basic church band in Venice, what kind of sound is John Butt asking for from his singers? In spite of owing a lot in its simplicity of scoring to Parrott’s 1983 recording, Butt’s performance is hugely focussed on the individuality of his singers. They are recorded pretty close up, so we are never allowed to forget that these singers are soloists; however well they are balanced and sing together, the sense of friendly competition frequently seems to trump absolute clarity, as in Lauda Jerusalem, so rich and exciting at (properly) down a fourth but at A=466. This style of singing may be justified by the ecstatic, volatile and highly charged nature of much of the music – it is Italian, after all – but these are singers at the top of their game who can do anything. For example, I was disappointed that the two sopranos didn’t hold their notes entirely still in the opening bars of their Et Misericordia: they ‘improved’ vastly later on and were almost perfect in the sustained Gloria as a foil to Nicholas Mulroy’s (properly here) dramatic roulades. Per contra, Amy Lyddon and Rory McCleery seemed to judge it exactly right in Esurientes, and the sustained lines of chant all through the Magnificat  are splendidly controlled.

Could more have been done to give the concerti  a greater sense of intimacy in contrast to the Psalm settings? I listened hard to see if the singers were consciously changing their style to match the difference in these pieces and I thought that Nicholas Mulroy did that splendidly in Nigra sum; the tenors Matthew Long and Joshua Ellicot gave us a wonderfully nuanced and controlled start to Duo Seraphim, and all three sustained Et hi tres unum sunt without a breath. The chamber style was certainly helped by the absence in these movements (till Audi cœlum) of the Italian organ and the discrete sustaining of a string bass along with the pluckers in Duo Seraphim.

Some small points: I like the relaxed tripla  Butt goes for – it makes sense of the proportions and time changes in the Sonata in particular, but in the Gloria of Laudate pueri, each choir in the tripla  section fails to sing bars 3 and 4 of the six bar phrase as a hemiola, producing an unmusical accent on ‘et’. The decision to follow some existing organs of the period and voice tessiturae and play at A=466 is confirmed by the more relaxed sonorities in Lauda  and the Magnificat, the movements where almost everyone now accepts the scholarly arguments for downward transposition. And ornaments. We know that cornetto players as well as violinists can turn every passage into a display of personal virtuosity, but is it right to do it so constantly? It seemed to affect the singers too in the verses of the hymn as well as in every ritornello. In big acoustics, I find it confusing as well as distracting.

The double page photo of the Dunedin Consort on pages 54/55 of the booklet doesn’t belong here: it is an earlier picture of players gathered for some Baroque concert – so no singers are visible, and it’s all the wrong instruments. If we need an overall photo with everyone there, it does need to relate to this recording, and could be part – like understanding the way the singers and players stand in relation to each other – of our appreciating the performance practice decisions. As always, there is good information about the pitch and tuning, but, except for the keyboard instruments, little information about the instruments themselves.

What I like most about this performance is that John Butt thinks long and hard about the music and how it works as a whole, chooses his singers and players with care, but then trusts them to deliver the music and so doesn’t feel the need to micro-manage them. This is what delivers committed and gracious music-making of the kind that is captured here.

David Stancliffe