September 2006

Monteverdi - Vespers
Soloists, Choir of the King’s Consort; The King’s Consort, Robert King, conductor
Hyperion SCDA67531/2
Format: Hybrid Multichannel SACD
Released: 2006

by Rad Bennett

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) published his Vespers of the Blessed Virgin in 1610. Up to that time, the composer’s published output had been secular music, such as his opera Orfeo, considered very avant-garde for its day. He no doubt had previous connections to church music since he served as choirmaster to the Duke of Gonzaga, providing both sacred and secular compositions.

But this gigantic published "sampler" seemed to be Montverdi’s sacred résumé to the music community, indicating that he could compose sacred as well as secular music. Monteverdi never intended that it be performed complete, as it often is today, but that various motets be used by churches that had the forces to perform them. A shrewd businessman, he supplied alternate versions that bypassed the use of huge instrumental forces so that a poorer church could use them with simple organ accompaniment.

Robert King and his consort have made quite a specialty of performing Monteverdi’s sacred music. There are four volumes of it thus far, all available from Hyperion on hybrid SACD. He has an uncanny feeling for the ebb and flow of this music and a keen ear for the composer’s brilliant orchestration. His virtuoso chorus and orchestra sing and play with astonishing skill and beauty. The soloists are all superb, but one must single out soprano Carolyn Sampson and tenor James Gilchrist for their beautiful, effortless vocalizing.

The recorded sound is warm and resonant, yet also very clear. The surrounds are used sparingly but effectively. The producers avoid placing any direct sound there, such as one of the groups in double-chorus motets, using the back channels only to capture the acoustic of a large church.