It is extraordinary how Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 still manages to speak to our modern ears so directly from 400 years ago. But then this epic choral celebration would have sounded startlingly modern at the time – it is dramatic, emotionally engaging music, a radical break from the more rarified, static polyphony that had previously characterised church music.
Since the Vespers were ‘rediscovered’ in the 20th century, there has been no dearth of excellent recordings – is there room for another? Italian conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini is renowned for leading blisteringly exciting, historically informed performances, and here he has created his own edition of a hypothetical Vespers service. It includes a reconstruction of the closing Magnificat and the addition of the well-known motet ‘Beatus vir’ (Monteverdi himself was perhaps purposely vague about the exact content of the Vespers, most likely in order to maximise the work’s performance potential).
Using just eight singers, one voice to a part rather than full choir, Alessandrini has also cleverly harnessed the acoustic of the Mantua church where this was recorded (Monteverdi himself was employed in that city for many years before moving to Venice). You can hear the detail of each individual voice and instrument (the antiphons spotlighting the sackbuts are particularly striking), but the church’s two-second echo adds fullness to the tutti sections, without sounding contrived or over-engineered. The opening movement ‘Domine ad adiuvandum’, is captured in thrilling, sonic splendour and the motet ‘Beatus vir’ is a highlight, with its graceful, joyous interplay of voices and instruments.