I spent most of February and March writing a story about Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine. I think I ended up listening to 20 recordings of the work and then selected 15 of them for the story. In case you are interested, the story will appear in the summer issue of Early Music America Magazine.
The Vespers, (along with Wagner’s Parsifal) is probably my favorite piece of music so you would think sitting down with a foot and a half of Vespers would be bliss. For the most part it was. The down side is that one performance can ultimately bleed into another, so you need to space your listening out or you will lose your mind.
Stack of Vespers
After I completed the story I received a live recording of the performance by the Green Mountain Project. The Green Mountain Project is a consortium of some of the finest performers on the early music scene. On January 3rd of this year they gave what was possibly the first performance of the Vespers in the 400th anniversary year. The entire production was a labor of love that was spearheaded by their artistic director Jolle Greenleaf and music director Scott Metcalfe.
If you care anything about Monteverdi you owe it to yourself to contribute to the Green Mountain Project and get a copy of the recording. What makes this Vespers better than others? Lots of things. The performance has each psalm preceded by a chant antiphon and they make good liturgical sense – antiphons for the First Vespers on the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin. As Scott Metcalfe writes in his excellent program notes, “Besides being the Marian feast closest to today’s date of January 3, Purification, celebrated on the fortieth day from Christmas, was regarded as the last feast of the long Christmas season that began back at the end of November on the first Sunday of Advent…”
The Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, also called The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, or Candlemas -- painting by Hans Holbein the Elder
The Green Mountain performers opted for one voice to a part and performed at A466, a semitone above the modern 440. Metcalfe points out, “This is the most common pitch of cornetts and other wind instruments surviving from Monteverdi’s time and was the general standard in Venice and Northern Italy.” Another bonus was the use of string instruments from the late 16th or early 17th century that were set up with unwound gut strings. This was the real deal folks!
The performance is a beauty. The soloists have just the right sound for this music – clean and crisp but also abundantly warm. This is difficult music and not one singer misses an opportunity to shine. If you don’t think the Pulchra es is one of the most sublime moments in all of music, the performance of Jolle Greenleaf and Molly Quinn is going to convince you. Drama rules here too, just sit back and listen to Marc Molomot, Jason McStoots and Steven Caldicott Wilson in Duo seraphim. Those gut string fiddles sound glorious as do the wind players. Sure, the recording is live and there are some sounds from the audience, but the audio quality is very good and there is a palpable sense of occasion when you listen. Lithe and lovely, this is a recording that easily goes to the top of my tower of Vespers.
Here’s another good thing about the recording. When you go to the Green Mountain Project website and order the CD (which also comes with a terrific souvenir program), all proceeds go to funding future performances. So figure it out folks, you get a document of a revelatory performance and lay the groundwork for future performances. Do the right thing!
Mei Mei was blown away by the Green Mountain Project's Monteverdi too!
Visit the Green Mountain Project