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Monteverdi ‘lite’: much concerned with the sexual proclivities of the Duke of Mantua and his parsimony in respect of musicians’ salaries, this visually delightful documentary with musical illustrations, presented engagingly by Simon Russell-Beale, says precious little about the music itself or its liturgical context.

Sumptuous Mantuan locations and elegant camera-work entice the potential tourist. The one jarring visual note is the Anglican neo-gothic of that BBC favourite, St Augustine’s, Kilburn, used for the large ensemble excerpts, though the vitality of those well-recorded semi-live performances is unimpeachable. The celebrated organ in the Ducal Chapel of Santa Barbara is featured but other locations, such as the Basilica di Sant’Andrea, where Monteverdi’s sacred music might well have been performed, ignored. Maybe a decision was taken not to inform the TV audience that the various components of the 1610 MS have separate origins?

The text introducing the aptly-chosen performances is occasionally misleading: the use of cori spezzati is demonstrated, for example, but we are left, surely accidentally, with the impression that this was one of Monteverdi’s inventions rather than a technique already passing the peak of fashion (due in part to Monteverdi’s genuine innovations, which are referred to but rarely adequately explained). There are longueurs, including an uncomfortable attempt to perform from the original part-books which turns into a solo soprano and lutenist presenting a snippet most could sing from memory.

What is the Office of Vespers? Why does controversy surround the 1610 manuscript? What else is in it? Answer came there none. Quotations from Monteverdi’s surviving letters add authenticity and some scholarly talking-heads speak both well and to the point, but the principal personalities persist in peddling the tired old assumption that Monteverdi intended a ‘Vespers’ in the form performed most regularly today.

REBECCA TAVENER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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