Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine

Ludus Modalis, Bruno Boterf
Ramée RAM1702

A recording of the Monteverdi Vespers with minimalist scoring and the six-voice Magnificat is a welcome alternative to the plethora of versions with a Praetorius-inspired monumentality that could only have been realised in very few establishments in the early 17th century. While more minimalist versions – beginning with Andrew Parrott’s landmark recording in 1984 – are now the preferred way of hearing performances of the large-scale version that includes the opening toccata, the sonata and the seven-part Magnificat, Ludus Modalis are to be congratulated on providing us with a pared down version, with twelve singers grouped around an organ built by Bernard Boulay after Costanzo Antegnati for the church in Prazac near Angoulême, where this recording was made.

The singers are not random soloists, with little experience of consort or choral singing, but members of the group Ludus Modalis – five sopranos, two altos, three tenors (including Boterf himself) and three basses – formed primarily to sing music of the Renaissance. Their sound is homogeneous, free of modern vibrato and in many ways ideal for the prima prattica. But for some of the singers, the seconda prattica episodes in the psalms as well as in the concerti make demands rather beyond their comfort zone. Like the organ, tuned in a meantone temperament at A=440 with a lot of perfect thirds, the group sing with clarity of sound and clean chording. Their blend with the organ can be heard at its best in Audi Cœlum, where the single notes in the organ bass at cadences can be appreciated.

But there are some question marks in my mind. The first concerns the bassus generalis which Boterf sees as an incipient basso continuo part.  Accordingly he has no qualms in adding to the basic organ two harpsichords (one strung in brass, the other with gut), a bass viol, a bass sackbut and a bass cornett. He uses this array to colour the bass line – and sometimes to reinforce a cantus firmus, as in Nisi Dominus – in a way that seems to me anachronistic and sometimes unmusical: hearing the crochets in the verses with the running bass in Laetatus sum played on a bass sackbut is as odd as using the bass viol with a harpsichord to over-rigidify the fluid bass in Nigra sum. The incongruity is heightened when we hear the ritornelli between the verses of the hymn Ave Maris Stella played on differing combinations of these basso continuo instruments, with the wind and string members taking what are sometimes tenor lines in the ritornelli. Why – since he properly omits the ritornelli in Dixit Dominus – does he choose to retain them in these highly questionable instrumentations in the hymn?

Boterf is aware of the liturgical context of this part of Monteverdi’s 1610 publication and adds antiphons from the Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary, repeating them after each psalm. His solution to the gap left by the un-performable Sonata is ingenious. He uses a Recercar con obligo di cantar la quinta parte senza toccarla by Girolamo Frescobaldi, where he gives the wordless sung fifth part to the sopranos, fitting the words: Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis to it; and he doubles the organ tenor with bass cornett and the bass line with the sackbut.

But his treatment of the opening versicle and response is muddled liturgically. He has the opening Versicle: Deus in adjutorium sung by the cantor (officiant) and answered by all the male voices in plain Gregorian tone for Domine ad adjuvandum, but then breaks into the D chords of Monteverdi’s six part Response at Gloria Patri, only to have the Gregorian resume at Sicut before reverting to Monteverdi’s setting at Et in saecula, creating a liturgically unwarranted break up in the lines, presumably to preserve Monteverdi’s setting of Alleluia.

In the psalm settings, Boterf does not always make a clear distinction between the alternating verse structure – a feature of both Dixit Dominus and Laetatus sum; and not everyone will like his rather wooden approach to the tempi and changes in proportion in Laudate pueri and the Magnificat.

As we reach Lauda Jerusalem we realise that he is transposing Lauda down a tone, but when we come to the Magnificat there is no downward transposition at all. This makes a number of the soprano entries in the Magnificat seem terrifyingly high – those on high A in Fecit potentiam and in Sicut locutus est seemed particularly out of the sopranos’ comfort zone. Another curiosity is the relation between the voice-parts in Suscepit Israel where the sextus part, notated in a G2 clef, is suddenly transposed down an octave, so that the voices sing in sixths rather than thirds. It also brings the sextus part well below the organ part in measures 52 to 52. What is the textual (or musical) justification for this rearrangement? But I did warm to the beating rank on the organ from measures 22 to 38 in Quia respexit as Monteverdi stipulated.

In spite of these caveats, I like the overall feel of this performance, even if the recording in this small church does not quite have either the bloom or the clarity we might hope for. So I hope listeners will gain in understanding, and singers will be encouraged to perform this version, for which you need no more than an organ for accompaniment.

David Stancliffe