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GRAMOPHONE (12/1996)
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Harmonia Mundi

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Reviewer: David Fallows


Rene Jacobs presents here what is in many ways an old-fashioned view of the 1610 Vespers. Everything is performed at the same pitch, in fact A=440; he follows the sequence of movements in the original prints except in exchanging the "Ave maris stella" and the "Sancta Maria"; he has a substantial chorus to contrast with his soloists, sometimes changing over between phrases; his orchestra is larger than most; and the only added music is plainsong antiphons performed both before and after each psalm. Some of those decisions are defensible, but it does mean that the main competition for his new recording is in versions over 20 years old - Jürgens and Gardiner.


Jacobs 's novelty is in thinking that when Monteverdi writes for two equal voices with the same clef and matching music it sounds better with singers who sound utterly different from one another. Since several of the performers here are unknown to me, I would prefer not to specify exactly what happens (they are not individually credited in the notes , though the alto Andreas Scholl seems to sing a lot of the soprano lines, and many of the tenor lines sound distinctly baritone, presumably Victor Torres) , but those listening to "Pulchra es", "Duo seraphim" or "Audi coelum" will be able to hear and judge for themselves . One should encourage original and well-considered artistic decisions; but this one I find rather distracting.


The acoustic ambience (again not specified) is nice and rich but suffers from a nasty echo, so notes occasionally jump back at you and a fair amount of the best detail is lost. Even so, it seems that Jacobs sometimes takes tempos that put the faster notes way beyond even the skilled Netherlands Chamber Choir (particularly in " Laetatus sum" and "Nisi Dominus"). The instrumentalists are excellent, with a thick and warm continuo group as well as perhaps the most secure cornello players I have heard (though it is odd that they embellish like mad while the violins keep doggedly to the written notes).

Jacobs approaches the work with courage, a wide range of tempos and a vivid imagination features that characterize so much of his finest musicianship . Many sections positively glow. But it remains hard to see how this challenges the grand old recordings of the years around 1970.



Monteverdi's Vespers - which recording is best ?

For outgoing splendour:

"René Jacobs’s 1995 recording is a sudden return to full-blooded choral singing, supplied by the Netherlands Chamber Choir, robustly buoyed by instrumental doubling. The choir is not the most refined or transparent but Jacobs draws a vibrant and flamboyant performance from them, in which lyrical expression is never forgotten. Interestingly, the vocal lines are largely unadorned but the cornett embellishments are almost balmily florid. There is also a lovely and unhurried “Pulchra es” from Maria Cristina Kiehr and Barbara Borden...John Eliot Gardiner’s explosive second recording takes some beating, and Robert King is eager and spontaneous though less imaginative, but it is René Jacobs’s outgoing and richly doubled performance that perhaps does most both to excite and please the ear."

Lindsay Kemp, Mon 9th February 2015, Gramophone

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