There have been so many recordings of Monteverdi's Vespro della Beata Vergine, some of them very fine indeed, that it must be getting hard for performers to continue finding anything new to say about the work. However, that's not a problem that's ever got in the way of Christina Pluhar and her L'Arpeggiata ensemble, because every one of their performances and recordings reveals a fresh and stimulating approach to the works in question.
And so it is with the present recording, for this is an exciting, delightful and highly original Vespers performance. Christina Pluhar's own fascinating booklet notes give us a good idea of what to expect - namely something much closer to a 'concert' than a liturgical performance, more intimate in scale than the norm, more secular in character but nevertheless imbued with passionate sincerity and profound commitment. And all this combined with superb musicianship, enhanced by numerous delights both vocal and instrumental - and, in the case of the handsome booklet and the accompanying DVD, visual as well! The spontaneity and energy of the performance make their mark from the very outset in the 'Domine ad adiuvandum' movement, with Doron Sherwin's cornetto weaving magical decorative garlands around the basically simple chant melody. Here and throughout the work, singers and players do a wonderful job, forming a superbly coherent team with excellent balance between voices and instruments.
The energetic 'Dixit Dominus' sounds just as exciting, as are all the other pieces. All the singers are terrific with, for me, especially fine contributions from sopranos Raquel Andueza and Nuria Rial and from tenor Emiliano Gonzalez Toro; but the distribution of vocal parts is very democratic, so everyone gets a chance to shine - and so they do! There is wonderful impetus and drive to 'Lauda Jerusalem', and the 'Sonata sopra Sancta Maria' is an absolute delight. To finish, the ensemble chooses to perform the 7-voice version of the Magnificat with instruments, with dazzling interludes shared between the various instrumental groups to brilliant effect and including, once again, splendid acrobatics from the cornetti among others.
The whole work is fitted onto one 75-minute CD, and if you go for the Deluxe Edition Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610) there is a further bonus in the form of a 22-minute DVD which turns out to be a great asset to the package. It consists of performances of 'Laetatus sum', 'Sonata sopra Sancta Maria' and 'Pulchra es', filmed at the recording sessions, together with 'Dixit Dominus' accompanied by still photos of the performers. The first three items are so lovingly filmed and captivatingly performed that, depending on your inclinations, you might well end up falling in love by the time you've finished watching. In any case, to watch in close-up the concentration, the intensity and the commitment in the faces and body language of the singers and players is a quite fascinating experience in itself.
As befits a work of such stature there are, as I mentioned at the start, many excellent recordings of the Vespers. Not only will a great number of early-music fans already have one or more versions in their collection, but it would take a brave reviewer to single out a candidate for the best version around. So I can only say that, for me, this present disc is certainly one of the very best I have heard, a superb performance and recording with a unique character and, in the case of the Deluxe Edition, with the additional bonus of that fascinating DVD.