Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine

Raphaël Pichon was 10 years old when he first encountered the Monteverdi Vespers. “It was like entering a whole new galaxy,” he tells Apple Music Classical. “It shocked me and it changed me.” Now, over 25 years after that formative first performance, and a decade since he first conducted it himself, Pichon has finally recorded a work he describes as “a real odyssey” with his award-winning ensemble Pygmalion. Published in Venice in 1610, the Vespers is an enigma. Is this sequence of Psalms, Magnificats, hymns, and solo motets a musical cycle intended for complete performance, or is it a portfolio of stand-alone pieces, to be drawn on as required? The debate rages on, but Pichon argues that it can, and should, be both. “It’s like a box with the most amazing treasures inside,” he says, “a collection of worlds. But the greatest sensation is to take the full journey and visit all those different spaces, different eras, different stories…” It’s a score that asks rather than answers questions, leaving many decisions up to the performer. The size of the forces involved, solo or ensemble voices, order, even pitch: all are up for grabs. “The space for interpretation is huge,” Pichon says. “But I hope that over a decade of performances we’ve built our own account. I hope you won’t hear a conductor making choices but something that’s part of us, like a native language—part of our identity.” That identity is clear from the arresting opening: a solo intonation that’s pure theater, a brash, earthy sound deliberately rooted in the Mediterranean, influenced as much by the call of muezzins as traditional Catholic chant. It’s like someone has dropped a coin into the slot in a Venetian church, and frescoes that were in shadow are suddenly illuminated, rich in color and detail. Pichon’s performance reminds us that Monteverdi was also the composer of the equally arresting Orfeo and the madrigals. It’s full of dramatic scope and contrast, and is a large-scale choral tour de force that finds an almost improvised spontaneity in solo moments—both for singers and instrumentalists. Those aren’t the only surprises. In devising a recording rather than a live concert, Pichon has made some unusual choices to create the most satisfying sequence. Linking passages of plainsong are gone (“I hesitated a lot about it, and we recorded both, but felt that the plainsong was more connected to the physical act of performance”), an additional antiphon “Sancta Maria, succurre miseris” has been added to complement the instrumental sonata, and pitches vary between movements, intensifying a dramatic arc and sense of climax: “It adds a really organic contrast, moments of release and of tension.” Most striking, however, is a new ending. In a mirror to the opening and that arresting cry from the solo tenor, Pichon has set the dismissal text “Fidelium animae” to the same musical pattern of declamation. “It feels,” he says, “totally natural. I hope it’s a choice that makes our journey even clearer: it’s a circular piece, a cosmic piece. To return to where we start—to something so simple—is pure joy. We’ve visited so many complex worlds but we are coming back to the very essence of it, to just one or two chords. With these we say, ‘Thank you. Let’s see each other again next time.’”

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