"Venetian Vespers": First Vespers of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin, as it might have been celebrated in St. Mark's, Venice, in 1643. With music by Monteverdi, Rigatti, Grandi, Cavalli, Finetti, Marini, Banchieri, Giovanni Gabrieli and Fasolo. Performed by the Gabrieli Consort & Players [Soloists: Tessa Bonner, Susan Hemington Jones, soprano; David Hurley, Timothy Wilson, falsetto; Charles Daniels, Mark le Brocq, Angus Smith, Andrew Tusa, Robert Horn, tenor; Charles Pott, Peter Harvey, baritone; Jonathan Best, Adrian Peacock, bass; Florian Deuter, Frances Turner, Henrietta Wayne, violin; Timothy Roberts, organ; Paula Chateauneuf, Fred Jacobs, Chitarrone; Celia Harper, double harp], dir. Paul McCreesh. Recorded in September 1990 in Brinkburn Priory, Northumberland, England. First published in 1993. Re-issued at mid-price in 1999 as Deutsche Grammophon Archiv 459 457-2. Total playing time: 95'35".
Paul McCreesh and his ensemble shot to fame (at least in early music circles) in 1990 by means of their speculative but equally spectacular recording of "A Venetian Coronation 1595" for the Virgin Classics label (A Venetian Coronation 1595). When they were offered a contract with Deutsche Grammophon, it was presumably the obvious thing to do to record a similar reconstruction of music from Venice, especially as the music of Monteverdi was undergoing something of a renaissance at the end of the 80's, but Monteverdi's "Vespers of the Blessed Virgin" had already been brilliantly recorded a number of times (Gardiner: Monteverdi: Vespro Della Beata Vergine; Herreweghe: Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine; Parrott: Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine 1610/Venetian Vespers; Pickett: Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine / Pickett, New London Consort; Savall: Vespro DeLla Beata Vergine). So it was decided to record a vesper service from the year 1643, the year in which Monteverdi died. This would create an opportunity to present the music of some of Monteverdi's colleagues and/or rivals from St. Mark's. After doing some thorough research (the booklet hints at this but nowhere names the sources of the material), Paul McCreesh put together a program of something over 90 minutes containing, similarly to his first Venice CD, bells and Gregorian chant, but also organ music and, most importantly, some glorious psalm motets. In all this, it is NOT Monteverdi who is the focal point (as another reviewer has wrongly affirmed), although you will find four lovely pieces by him here, none of them (I believe) from the "Vespers of the Blessed Virgin" - Monteverdi's music fills a mere 21 minutes of these CDs. Of course, any fan of 17th century Italian music should know these pieces - just listen for example to the motet "Laudate Dominum", here performed by Angus Smith (although I personally found Catherine Bott's version of this piece on her Decca album "Virtuoso Italian Vocal Music" even more enthralling: Virtuoso Italian Vocal Music). The largest portion of the music here recorded is, in fact, by the otherwise scarcely known Rigatti, who was a priest during Monteverdi's tenure at St. Mark's and used to sing in the choir there. His psalms, his "Magnificat" and his motet "Salve Regina" fill no less than 35 minutes of this set, which, at 95 minutes, is anything but crammed full. In these pieces you get to hear the majestic fullness of sound commonly associated with St. Mark's at this period, and in the "Magnificat" on the second CD you hear an accompaniment with low-voiced sackbuts or trombones which can really shake the building! But in my opinion the most beautiful pieces on this recording are the two delightful motets by Alessandro Grandi, who died all too early in 1630 and whose music deserves to be better known - musicologists have been known to express the suspicion that Monteverdi himself regarded Grandi as a rival and for that reason obstructed his career.
The performance by McCreesh's ensembles is as sovereign as one is used to from this famous troupe; but the listener needs to take to heart what McCreesh himself writes in the notes: "The chamber music quality of so much of the repertoire suggests that the aim was to tickle the ears of the Doge and the dignitaries within the Choir area, rather than fill the basilica with washes of sound." The sound engineer has tried to capture the spatial aspects of the performance, which in its turn means that the voices often sound somewhat pale in comparison with the instruments. Listening on ear-speakers I noticed that the recording was not completely hiss-free.