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Claudio Monteverdi's Vespers have certainly stood the test of time. For music to survive four hundred years and to remain popular is not only quite remarkable but also testament to its innate quality.
By 1610, Monteverdi was a married forty-something working very successfully at the court of Vincenzo I in Mantua. He was a singer, a viol player (or gambist to give it its slightly more attractive epithet) and, for the previous eight years, had been a court composer, too. Three years earlier Monteverdi had composed what is acknowledged to be one of the first ever operas, L’Orfeo. Basically, he was riding about as high as a young composer and musician could in those days. But by the sound of his famously far-reaching Vespers, it might not have been quite enough for him...
There is roughly an hour and a half of evening hymns in the Vespers of the Blessed Virgin 1610 (to give them their full name) and, as such, they are probably the biggest thing in sacred music the other side of Bach. It’s very possible that the whole ambitious work was written as a sort of audition piece for another court, because Monteverdi was keen to move on. If that was the case, then it might have worked; he transferred to a prestigious new job at St Mark’s in Venice less than three years later.
Michael Chance (alto); Mark Tucker (tenor); Nigel Robson (tenor); Bryn Terfel (baritone); Monteverdi Choir; London Oratory Junior Choir; English Baroque Soloists; His Majesty's Sagbutts and Cornetts; John Eliot Gardiner (conductor). Deutsche Grammophon: 4295652.
Illustration: Mark Millington