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Fanfare Magazine: 25:3 (01-02 / 2002)
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Harmonia Mundi

Code-barres / Barcode : 3149020171851


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Reviewer: Brian Robins

There can be little doubt that this, the first complete recording of Selva morale e spirituale, is one of the major releases of 2001. In collecting for publication nearly 40 of the sacred works he had composed in his capacity as maestro di cappella of St. Mark's, Venice, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the aging Monteverdi was making a statement. As much as the Mass in B Minor, the publication of the Selva morale in 1640 can surely only be viewed as a testament in which the composer is addressing posterity. "This," he seems to be saying, "represents the summation of my life's work in the field of sacred music." The contents certainly support such a conclusion. In the publication Monteverdi included examples of every genre of sacred music in which he had worked, from an a cappella Mass and Magnificat in the old prima prattica polyphonic style, to concerted psalm settings, sacred madrigals, and virtuoso solo motets, all in the modern, seconda prattica idiom he had himself done so much to establish.

Recordings of individual works from the Selva morale are hardly rare, but you have to go back some way for substantial selections, and as far as 1967 to find a previous set with any claim to completeness. That was first released as an eight-LP set on Erato under the direction of Michel Corboz, and omitted only the four-part a cappella Mass. During the 1980s, the pioneering work of Corboz was supplemented by several single discs of excerpts, most notably those of Parrott (EMI), Bernius (Pantheon), and Christie (Harmonia Mundi). Since then Monteverdi's great compilation seems to have been consigned to limbo, consistently thrust aside by the ubiquitous 1610 Vespers, with only A Sei Voci's disc (reviewed by J. F. Weber in 22:2) including more than the odd work. It is necessary, therefore, to make the point that in the current climate this is not only a hugely important undertaking, but a brave one for which Harmonia Mundi deserves unreserved approbation.

Before looking at the discs individually, a couple of general points:

First, in accordance with Cantus Cölln's usual practice, all the works are performed with a single voice per part (as they also are on Christie's disc and, with a couple of exceptions, Parrott's). This decision will doubtless raise the ire of those who will point to the substantially greater number of forces Monteverdi had available to him at St. Mark's for larger-scale pieces in the stile concertato, or those scored for a cappella groups. By way of compensation (and again in contrast to Parrott and Christie, who go for viols), Junghänel has opted for the alternative of trombones in the appropriate works, which add much color and weight where required.

Second, the order in which the works are performed. Many of them are psalms belonging to Vespers, so discs 1 and 3 have been arranged to take some account of the sequence in which they occur in the Liturgy. That leaves the second disc for works that do not have Vespers connota-tions. This seems to me a sensible arrangement, since, as Junghänel points out in his ancillary note, Monteverdi would certainly not have expected the collection to have been performed either all together, or in anything like publication order (which, for those interested, is printed at the beginning of the booklet provided with the set).

Disc 1. Three of the most imposing concerted pieces in the Selva morale are included on the first disc, the powerfully rhetorical Dixit Dominus seconde, Beatus vir primo, one of the most popular works in the collection, and the superbly resplendent Magnificat a 8, in itself almost a distillation of the devices employed by Monteverdi in seconda prattica style. Anyone nervous that the single-voice approach might diminish the impact of these works need go no further than the concerted entry at "sede a dextris" in Dixit Dominus to learn that such fears are groundless. Indeed, so graphically incisive is the impact of the performance of this colorful "series of tableaux" (Jerome Roche) that the effect is quite overwhelming. I'm not quite as happy with Beatus vir, where the memorable vitality of the opening and repeated closing sections are marred by a tempo that is just a bit too fast, leading to some rather gabbled words at times. However, the central part (from "Jocundus") comes off with a nice "swing," and the peroration has enormous breadth and depth. As published, the Magnificat for two four-part choirs has the alto and bass parts for the second choir missing; there is no attribution for the reconstruction, which there should have been. Otherwise, there can be few complaints, the performance encapsulating the vivid contrast, sweep, and drama of this stunning work to near-ideal effect. The climax, driving forward from the extraordinary passage on the words "recordatus miser-cordiae suae," is superlatively controlled by Junghänel.

Among the smaller pieces are the two exquisite settings of the Marian antiphon Salve Regina, one for three voices (ATB), the other for two, here sung in the alternative for sopranos rather than tenors. Hearing them in close proximity provides a wonderful example of Monteverdi's ability to set the same words exploiting quite different affetti; the three-part piece concentrates on expressive word-painting, while the duet concentrates on the sensual color obtainable from two similar voices. Closely allied is the remarkable Salve Regina, Audi caelum, a florid duet for tenor with echoing voice and an expressive obbligato part for two violins. Wilfried Jochens sings the principal part with great power and conviction, the ardent outpouring of the opening section well contrasted with the more supplicatory mood that succeeds, the dissonant darkening at gementes et fentes (mourning and weeping) very telling.

Disc 2. The earlier part is devoted to the three madrigale morale and two conzonette morale. The five-part madrigals are in the late continuo style of Book 8 of the secular madrigals, the Madrigali guerrieri ed amorosi (1638). They include the two magnificent Petrarch settings, O ciechi, ciechi and Voi eh 'ascolte, the former in particular one of the quintessential examples of its type. Here startling changes of tempo and mood, solos, the stile concitato, and echo effects are all distilled into an extraordinary three and a half minutes. The three-voice strophic conzonette are ostensibly lighter, but at the same time take full advantage of the textural ambivalence summed up by the refrain of Chi vol che m 'innamori: "Today we laugh, and then tomorrow we shall weep," words (and music) that take on an almost unbearable added poignancy as I write a couple of days after the unspeakable terrorist attack on the US. The performances of all five of these works are outstanding, one of the highlights of the set.

Nonliturgical mode is preserved in the following Pianta della Madonna, the sacred contrafactum of the famous lament of Ariadne from Monteverdi's lost opera Arianna. The performance by Johanna Koslowsky is one of the few real disappointments of the set since—although she sings with sensitivity—Koslowsky's hooty upper register is here at its most exposed. Neither is the voice at all times under control, leaving this performance trailing some way behind those of Emma Kirkby and Maria Cristina Kiehr. Neither, I fear, am I very taken with Junghänel's performance of the beautiful four-part a cappella Mass, Monteverdi's return, albeit updated, to the old polyphonic style. I simply cannot believe that the composer intended this work to be given with single voices, the employment of which leads the conductor into excesses of tempo that at times (the opening Kyrie, for example) reduce the music to the perfunctory. This a fault I've noticed before with this director, who I suspect is at times led astray by the sheer technical brilliance and expertise of his ensemble. There are two other a cappella pieces on this disc, the psalm settings Credidi (verses from Psalm 116), and Momento Domine David (Psalm 132). But these are quite different, double-choir (cori spezzati) settings that demand a rich, euphonious texture amply conveyed by Cantus Colin. And I cannot leave this abundantly diverse disc without mention of the profoundly moving singing of the short, darkly dissonant Crucifixus a 4, one of three Mass movements in the Selva morale from what may have been a mass of thanksgiving composed in 1631 to mark the end of the plague epidemic in Venice.

Disc 3. The final disc opens with the famous Gloria a 7, and the eight-part Dixit Dominus primo, two of the largest works in the collection. The performance of the Gloria opens with flamboyantly dancing rhythms that give way to an "Et in terra" of majestic sonority and breadth, a striking contrast reversed at "Gratias," where the massive block harmony gives way to the tenors's florid burst of energy at the words "gloriam tuam." At "Qui tollis," the more devotional mood is effectively caught. An enthralling performance, fully comparable with Christie's equally impressive reading of the work. Dixit, like its companion an eight-part setting, again relies on strong contrast, in this instance the repetition of text by the full body after its initial statement by solo voices. I'm none too happy about Koslowsky's opening, but thereafter the majestic text is delivered with authority and rhetorical power, broadening out spectacularly to a great paean at its conclusion. The five-part settings of Beatus vir secondo and Laudate pueri secondo were clearly designed to be complementary. Both are closely woven contrapuntal tapestries that feature much madrigalian imitative writing, the kind of music in which Cantus Colin excel, and they do so here.

Of the three solo motets on this disc, the joyously extroverted Laudate Dominum in Sanctis ejus is given a splendidly affirmative performance by tenor Hans Jörg Memmel, while Stephen Macleod achieves astonishing feats in the depths of the bass register with the wonderful passage from Proverbs 8, Ab aeterno ordinato sum (I was set up from everlasting). Macleod's rock-firm tone and vivid characterization of this evocation of the Creation make this another of the set's absolute highlights. Finally: the Magnificat seconda, another return not only to the polyphonic style of Ůíq prima prattica, but the old practice of setting the polyphony in alternatum with plainsong. Unlike Rinaldo Alessandrini (Opus 111), Junghänel has not taken account of the chiavette scoring to transpose the work down, employing an SSAT lineup that gives much of it an ethereal, luminescent quality. After so much brilliance, the simple plainsong Amen that brings not just the Magnificat but the set to a close somehow seems a singularly appropriate conclusion to Monteverdi's great enterprise.

The sound quality is exceptionally spacious and clear, with good balance between voices and instruments. There are also excellent, succinct (possibly too succinct) notes by Peter Wollny. Final thoughts? Well, as I've made clear, the set is no more perfect than one would expect from such a huge enterprise. Looked at retrospectively, might there not be places where German precision could have benefited from an injection of Italian flair and warmth? Yes, I think there may well be. But none of that is going to stop me hailing this as a major achievement, a set that has in turn thrilled, uplifted, and moved me in full measure. It should, nay, demands to be in every Monteverdi collection.


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