Certain recordings can be thought of as having a defining quality:
recordings that helped change the way we listen to and think about
particular works. For me, CDs coming into this category would
include Nadia Boulanger’s Monteverdi madrigals, Roger Norrington’s
Beethoven symphonies and Joshua Rifkin’s one-voice-to-a-part Bach.
Also included in this category is Andrew Parrott’s 1984 version
of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610.
strips back the work to one singer per part, removing massive
choral sound and replacing it with the intensity of large-scale
chamber music. Though we can never know for certain, this
type of performance is probably much closer to what Monteverdi
heard at St. Marks. But Parrott’s recording is notable for
rather more than just jettisoning monumental choral sound.
The entire disc
is organised around a liturgical reconstruction of the Vespers
as done by Hugh Keyte. It includes a significant amount
of plainchant. Here the Magnificat and each of the
vespers psalms is preceded by the relevant plainchant antiphon.
In lieu of the repeat of the plainchant antiphon to follow
each Psalm, Parrott uses Monteverdi’s concerti from
the 1610 Vespers along with two instrumental pieces
by Cima. The result is convincing and, recorded in a naturalistic
church acoustic, sounds as if one is eavesdropping on a real
What you don’t
get here is a recording of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers as
a monolithic masterpiece. Monteverdi probably did not intend
the collection to be used all in one go. Parrott and Keyte’s
reconstruction makes a convincing argument for itself, especially
in this committed performance. Other, more recent recordings,
such as that of Rinaldo Alessandrini by-pass the arguments
by simply recording the Vespers in the published order.
This latter approach, if taken really strictly, would require
the performers to give us both versions of the Magnificat
and the Mass setting also included in the published
The last area
where Parrott’s recording is ground-breaking is that it was
the first to record the Magnificat and Lauda Sion
transposed down a fourth, recognising that Monteverdi
had written them using the conventions of the day. This is
still one of those arguments which is not quite settled. Alessandrini,
on his recording, uses the transposition because not to do
so would require the overall ensemble to be enlarged. This
transposition causes problems as it means that the Magnificat
and Lauda Sion are placed rather too low in the
singers’ voices, forcing them to sacrifice some of the expressiveness.
As such, this is not an argument against the validity of the
theories about the transposition. Monteverdi probably use
a pitch-standard around a minor third above the A=440 used
in this recording. No-one has, yet done a recording at this
high pitch because it would entail a whole set of instruments
being specially made.
Whilst this recording
is defining, it is not necessarily definitive. Listeners wishing
to investigate other performers who generally follow Parrott’s
approach would be well advised to try the recordings of Philip
Pickett and of Paul McCreesh.
of the work is quite gentle at times, broken up as it is by
plainchant and instrumental episodes. He also eschews the
dramatics of some more recent accounts to create a performance
of quiet sincerity.
He draws his singers
from quite a large group of performers: Emma Kirkby, Tessa
Bonner, Evelyn Tubb, Emily van Evera, Rogers Covey-Crump,
Charles Daniels, Nigel Rogers, Joseph Cornwell, Andrew King,
David Thomas, Richard Savage and Richard Wistreich.
amongst you will notice that the above list includes no altos.
In line with Parrott’s general thinking in these areas, he
avoids female altos and counter-tenors and uses two high tenors
(Covey-Crump and Daniels) to sing the alto parts. This is
facilitated by the low pitch of the Magnificat and
A notable addition
to the standard roster of young period-practice singers in
Parrott’s list is the name of Nigel Rogers, a performer from
a previous generation of specialist singers. Rogers’ voice
does rather stand out from the other tenors, but his way with
Monteverdi’s vocal line is as inspiring and as stunning as
ever. Parrott takes care only to use him in spot-lit roles,
which works rather well.
The other singers
are well balanced, and in the more choral passages produce
a fine rich tone which belies the slim-line nature of the
performers. To work out exactly who is singing what, you have
to go to the EMI web-site to download the libretto. Frankly,
Rogers apart, the singers are all of a part with no single
voice standing out as more individual than the rest. Yes,
you can pick out Emma Kirkby, but her dulcet tones are not
that noticeably different from those of Tessa Bonner, Evelyn
Tubb and Emily van Evera.
The big virtue
of this recording is its naturalness and vitality of expression.
The whole performance sounds exactly as if it ought to be
this way. The performers give vivid performances within Parrott’s
overall parameters. In no way does this sound like a museum
The Vespers are
accompanied, on the second disc, by excerpts from the Taverner
Consort’s earlier recording of Monteverdi’s Selve morale
e Spirituale of 1640. Here we get Monteverdi’s later thoughts
on the Dixit Dominus, Laudate Pueri and Magnificat
– all in strong performances.
the disc contains no libretto and only a summary of who performs
what in the Vespers. To get more information the CD booklet
says you must go to the web-site, www.emiclassics.com, but
I have so far failed to find the relevant texts on the site.
You will probably
want another recording of Monteverdi’s Vespers in addition
to this one. Perhaps Philip Pickett’s even more small-scale one,
Robert King’s brilliant choral one or Paul McCreesh’s more recent
liturgical reconstruction. The recording you choose will probably
reflect how you really want to hear Monteverdi’s masterpiece.
But of one thing I am certain, everyone ought to have a copy of
this brilliant performance in their library.