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Ever since 1953, when Anthony Lewis made the first complete recording of Monteverdi’s 1610 collection of music for Vespers, British groups have been – both on disc and in live performance – the foremost advocates of the work: John Eliot Gardiner formed his Monteverdi Choir in 1964 for a performance in Cambridge, and has committed two markedly different readings to disc; Andrew Parrott recorded Hugh Keyte’s liturgical reconstruction in the 1980s; and there have also been versions from – inter alios – Philip Pickett, Paul McCreesh and Robert King.

With all of that in mind, it seems incredible that this new release from Harry Christophers and the Sixteen is their first recording of the Vespers of 1610 per se (their 1988 album on Hyperion presented the music as it might have been heard at its first performance, interspersed with instrumental sonatas and the appropriate antiphons).

This is surely one of the most refined versions of the Vespers currently available – the singers are all long-standing members of the Sixteen, and so have been integral for many years to the group’s customary beautiful vocal sheen that Christophers has so lovingly cultivated; not a note is out of place in terms of the overall sound. Among the solo numbers, Mark Dobell’s ‘Nigra sum’ and the ‘Pulchra es’ from Grace Davidson and Charlotte Mobbs are delightful miniatures, while Jeremy Budd gives us a thrilling ‘Audi coelum’ (with Dobell providing the clarifying echoes).

In contrast, however, the choral movements are, on the whole, too safe – as if beauty of sound is too dearly prized to be challenged. While the famous opening carries impressive weight, I felt rather underwhelmed with Christopher’s approach to those movements, such as ‘Laetatus sum’ and ‘Lauda Jerusalem’, which ought to be viscerally thrilling – everything feels staid and four-square.

Rinaldo Alessandrini’s new recording with Concerto Italiano takes the form of a Vespers service for St Mark, but while it starts with the famous opening from Monteverdi’s 1610 publication, the remainder of the choral numbers are drawn from later collections – principally his 1640 Selva morale e spirituale. Alessandrini, too, has history with this music, having recorded the complete Vespers back in 2004 – still my preferred version. The qualities that I love in that recording – an immediacy that comes from a freer, highly text-aware approach to rhythms, and the earthy qualities of the singing – are present in this new album in spades, along with some ravishing instrumental playing in sonatas by Giovanni Battista Buonamente, Francesco Usper and Giovanni Gabrieli. An added bonus is a fascinating DVD documentary on Alessandrini and his approach to directing Monteverdi – he has, after all, recorded all the secular madrigals and much of the sacred music.

Adrian Horsewood Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Early Music Today, 2015 - ©Rhinegold Publishing