A rev­e­la­tory Ves­pers ex­pe­ri­ence

BBC Music Magazine - - Building A Library -

John Butt (con­duc­tor)

Dunedin Con­sort; His Majestys Sag­butts

& Cor­netts Linn Records CKD 569

Re­leased in 2017 to mark the 450th an­niver­sary of Mon­teverdi’s birth, the Dunedin Con­sort’s Ves­pers record­ing re­sists the temp­ta­tion to sur­round its con­stituent parts with plain­song to fo­cus di­rectly on the work as it was pub­lished. As John Butt ex­plains in his ex­cel­lent book­let, Mon­teverdi prob­a­bly con­ceived the 1610 com­pi­la­tion as ‘an ide­alised, “imag­i­nary” Ves­pers ser­vice’. Although Butt fol­lows the or­der of the orig­i­nal printed text, he sub­jects its con­tents to schol­arly scru­tiny and ar­rives at a per­for­mance that’s his­tor­i­cally in­formed and deeply im­mersed in words and their mean­ing.

This is one of those rare record­ings, im­pres­sive at first blush, that re­veals more with ev­ery hear­ing. There’s an equally rare com­bi­na­tion of in­no­cence and ex­pe­ri­ence about Butt’s ten-strong vo­cal team: com­pare the tre­ble-like pu­rity of

Butt’s per­for­mance is his­tor­i­cally in­formed and deeply im­mersed in words

so­pra­nos Joanne Lunn and Es­ther Brazil in the ‘Sonata so­pra Sancta Maria’ with the sen­su­ous, exquisitely ten­der singing in the duet ‘Pulchra es’. Sub­tle changes to the vo­cal scor­ing, mov­ing from one voice per part to the whole ensem­ble and back again, brings out usu­ally buried de­tails of Mon­teverdi’s coun­ter­point. Although the full set of singers is de­ployed in ‘Nisi Domi­nus’ and ‘Lauda Jerusalem’, they project light and shade into the com­poser’s ho­mo­phonic treat­ment of their psalm texts, thereby strik­ing a care­ful bal­ance be­tween the grandeur sug­gested by the words and the in­ti­macy of rit­ual wor­ship in a sa­cred space. Per­haps the at­mos­phere of Ed­in­burgh’s Greyfri­ars Kirk worked won­ders dur­ing the ses­sions; cer­tainly, the build­ing’s warm acous­tics com­ple­ment the mu­sic-mak­ing’s con­tem­pla­tive na­ture.

Some things will sur­prise, even ir­ri­tate those raised on ear­lier record­ings of the Ves­pers, Butt’s de­ci­sion to treat the shift from du­ple- to triple-time sec­tions as pro­por­tions of 3/2 among them. Although

cer­tain pas­sages are con­se­quently taken more slowly than usual, his flex­i­ble ap­proach to tempo re­la­tion­ships al­lows greater room for ex­pres­sive de­tails and, in the case of the ‘Sonata so­pra Sancta Maria’, for the plain­song can­tus fir­mus to un­fold at a uni­form speed.

For all the at­ten­tion lav­ished by John Butt and his mu­si­cians on the score – from the high cho­sen pitch and mean­tone tem­per­a­ment to the sam­pled sounds of an early 18th-cen­tury Vene­tian or­gan – this Ves­pers tran­scends his­tor­i­cally in­formed per­for­mance prac­tice to touch the spir­i­tual core of Mon­teverdi’s mas­ter­work.

Heart of the mat­ter: John Butt di­rects a soul­ful per­for­mance

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