MONTEVERDI Vespro della Beata Vergine 1610 • Edward Higginbottom, dir; Ch of New College Oxford; Charivari Agréable • NOVUM NCR 1382 (2 CDs: 90:32 Text and Translation)
Novum (Latin for “new”) is a good name for the New College Choir’s own label, which was launched a year ago with this new recording, still another marking the quatercentenary of the work’s publication. This is a straightforward presentation of the usual 13 numbers as they appear in the 1610 publication, withRead more nothing added or rearranged, but it is only the third time that the work has been recorded with a choir of men and boys and solo men and boys. Ireneu Segarra with the Escolania of Montserrat and Martin Flämig with the Dresden Kreuzchor have made the only other recordings of this work that use boys for both solo and choral singing. For choral singing only (with adult female soloists), we have Hanns-Martin Schneidt with the Regensburg Cathedral Choir, Philip Ledger with the King’s College Choir, Heinz Hennig with the Hannover Boys’ Choir, and Rudolf Pohl with the Aachen Cathedral Choir (the last not heard). A number of other recordings that list boys or boys’ choirs in the credits assign only the Sonata or chant antiphons to them.
So this is not in the same league as so many recent recordings that assign one voice to a part throughout, but compared with choral versions it is a remarkable performance. The solo and choral boys belie the common perception that they have neither the emotional nor the vocal maturity to express the music artistically. An outstanding illustration of this is the treble duet “Pulchra es,” which is superbly sung. Pairs of boys from Montserrat and Regensburg can be heard singing in tune but plodding through the music without much effect. The fourth and fifth verses of “Ave maris stella” are also notably well sung. There are briefer treble solos elsewhere, as in the first three psalms, that also indicate the high level of training that Higginbottom has instilled in his choir since 1975. Other highlights of the performance include “Duo Seraphim,” where in some competing versions the three tenors do not always manage the rapid figures convincingly.
Admittedly, this version may not suit all tastes. As recently as Fanfare 35:2, we suggested some good choices in various approaches. This one is different enough from any of those that it should be added to the list. The instrumental ensemble, also from Oxford, is very fine, with 16 players (and a chamber organ on which two organists play alternately) supporting the singers most effectively. On its own terms, lovers of the work will find this well worth hearing.