The Monteverdi Vespers are a particular favourite of mine. It is the most magnificent of early choral works, the most spectacular such work until the big choral works of Bach. Yet it is shrouded in mystery; nobody has the slightest idea why or for whom it was written and nobody can point to a known performance anywhere. In a way, this polarises the world into two camps, those who think it was written for Monteverdi's then employers, the Gonzaga family, the Dukes of Mantua, and those who think it was written for Something Else Entirely. It follows from the former that it is a small-scale devotional work for the Ducal chapel, possibly for the patron saint St. Barbara. The SEE group thinks it should be altogether more grand. \r\n\r\nIn the one printed version (Venice, 1610), it is not a conventional Vespers. The Psalms are apparently published in the wrong order and have between them not the traditional plainchant antiphons but individual arias and duets, virtually love songs, not really normal church material. So, what happened? In 1610, Monteverdi was Italy's most famous secular composer. He'd written madrigals and other works, plus the first true opera Ã¢â‚¬Å“OrfeoÃ¢â‚¬Â (the opening fanfare of Ã¢â‚¬Å“OrfeoÃ¢â‚¬Â was to find its way into the Vespers) but virtually no religious music. Then, in 1610, he produced in the same publication two major religious works. In John Eliot Gardiner's famous phrase, it was as if Bach, employed as Cantor for the churches at Leipzig, had suddenly started writing Italian opera. \r\n\r\nThe boy was in fact angling for a new job. He was not happy in Mantua, where he was overworked and underpaid. His wife had died, his health was poor and his two sons needed an education, one of these hoping for a Papal scholarship. The first work was a Mass (somewhat old-fashioned), dedicated to the current Pope, the second was the Vespers. In having the music published by a Venetian publisher, Monteverdi would appear to have been hedging his bets Ã¢â‚¬â€œ Venice and Rome were the two places where a prestigious appointment could most likely be found. The Pope accepted the dedication, but did nothing for Monteverdi. However, the Venetians wanted a new maestro di cappella to replace the recently deceased Giovanni Gabrieli, and in 1613 Monteverdi was summoned to a Ã¢â‚¬Å“provaÃ¢â‚¬Â. The music used in this occasion is not known, but it involved moving two small chamber organs to the church and the hiring of extra musicians to augment Venice's salaried musicians. Whatever it was, the Venetians were impressed, Monteverdi got the job and stayed in Venice until he died. \r\n\r\nSo, did he play the Vespers? Nobody knows, but there is certainly circumstantial evidence. Certainly he would have wanted to strut his stuff to an audience that liked its music grand (just listen to some of Paul McCreesh's reconstructions to get the general flavour). \r\n\r\nFor years, the work remained virtually unknown, and was known only in rearrangements (that by Dennis Stevens was the one most often found in the English-speaking world). Then two things happened Ã¢â‚¬â€œ the rise of the authentic instrument movement and the hearing of the Vespers by a schoolboy called John Eliot Gardiner. The Vespers changed JEG's life Ã¢â‚¬â€œ as a result, he studied music instead of history and became a professional conductor. He conducted it as a Cambridge student, and did something for the first time Ã¢â‚¬â€œ he presented it exactly as Monteverdi has scored it, rather than rearranging it to conform to some theoretical Vespers performance. JEG was one of the champions of the idea that Monteverdi knew exactly what he was doing, Corboz (see below) was another. \r\n\r\nTwo recorded versions emerged in the late '60s Ã¢â‚¬â€œ early '70s, the Erato version of Michel Corboz and the Ensemble Vocal & Instrumental de Lausanne, and the Telefunken Ã¢â‚¬Å“Das Alte WerkeÃ¢â‚¬Â version of JÃƒÂ¼rgen JÃƒÂ¼rgens, featuring the Concentus Musicus under Nicky Harnoncourt and the Hamburg Monteverdi Choir (yes! another one!) with the Wiener SÃƒÂ¤ngerknaben (Vienna Boys' Choir). JÃƒÂ¼rgens rearranged the work and added the antiphons thought necessary for a devotional performance, whereas Corboz (with mostly modern instruments) stuck to the original order. So small was the expertise with the original instruments that the lead cornetto player in both recordings (and in some subsequent ones) was Edward H. Tarr, the baroque trumpet specialist of the Schola Cantorum Basilienis, Basel's famous early music academy. One of these was a version that featured the famous TÃƒÂ¶lzer Knabenchor; can't remember anything else about it. \r\n\r\nAt around the same time emerged Something Entirely Different, Gardiner's first version. The newly-created Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra (on modern instruments at this time) was accompanied by a star cast, including the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble and the David Munrow Recorder Ensemble. Gardiner stuck to the order published by Monteverdi's score and included no antiphons. This one was unlike anything previously heard Ã¢â‚¬â€œ it packed a wallop. It didn't whisper, it BLAZED. The big choral numbers, Nisi Dominus and Lauda Jerusalem, were rendered like they had never been heard before. The world of Monteverdi would never be quite the same ever again. This Gardiner recording is now available cheaply as a Double Decca, and I would advise anyone wanting to try the piece to buy it. \r\n\r\nSo, after all that, what about recordings? For quality it boils down to two, each the antithesis of the other. In the red corner, Gardiner's second version, in the blue corner, Andrew Parrott and the Taverner Players and Chorus. \r\n\r\nGardiner's version, recorded to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Monteverdi Choir, is a Gardiner-grand version. It was recorded by Archiv in San Marco, Venice, and a film was made of the live performance (still findable on videocassette, soon to be available on DVD). Gardiner's theory is that the Vespers may have been performed in San Marco. The performance is exciting and spectacular, with the Monteverdis, the precision machine of choirs, on top form. On the video, different solos and arias are sung from different galleries. Gardiner is seen to be having a ball. The instrumental group from the English Baroque Soloists (on original instruments) is tiny, augmented by players from His Majesties Sagbutts and Cornetts. It amazes me still that so few players in such a big space can make such a racket. In fact, in spite of the original instruments and the smallness of the group, the performance is even more spectacular than the first Gardiner, more dramatic, more exciting. Some questions have been levelled against the sound quality, the textures becoming muddled in the vastness of San Marco, but it's an exciting, vital performance. The total commitment of all participants is palpable. \r\n\r\nParrott's version, now available on Virgin at a good price, is a minimalist devotional performance, featuring top-class early music specialist solo singers (Nigel Rogers, Emma Kirkby). Its textures are crystal-clear, its performance no less dedicated than Gardiner's. It does not augment the instruments specified in the original, as does Gardiner, and it includes plainchant antiphons. It is very much the darling of the authentic instrument brigade, who regard the Gardiner version as irremediably vulgar. \r\n\r\nWhich one to have? Each to his own. I have both, but it's to Gardiner I always return. To me, Parrott's is a beautiful, musical performance, but to me it smacks of a museum exhibit that has been dusted off. Gardiner, on the other hand, makes the music LIVE. You are confronted with a living, breathing piece of music with something relevant to say to we moderns 4 centuries after its composition. All the cobwebs are blown away. There's the difference Ã¢â‚¬â€œ a scholarly dissertation versus a red-blooded adventure novel. As a total pleb, I go for the adventure novel. \r\n\r\nWhat about other versions? For a work that nobody would touch with the proverbial barge pole for years, there are an amazing number of available performances, and I have not heard them all. I listened to the oldies (JÃƒÂ¼rgens and Corboz) and found that I couldn't take them any more Ã¢â‚¬â€œ Corboz is just soooo ponderous at times (Monteverdi played by hippos), and the JÃƒÂ¼rgens suffers from an Ã¢â‚¬Å“OKÃ¢â‚¬Â choir and the old Das Alte Werke problem of apparently having been recorded in Nicky H's garden shed. Gardiner's older version now sounds too rich, but it's undeniably exciting and generally good (except for Robert Tear, whom I have difficulty tolerating in anything). \r\n\r\nTo me the best of the rest is, heaven help us, Japanese. I fell off my chair laughing when first introduced to the idea of a Japanese original instrument group, but Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan have proved that they can cut the mustard with the Europeans. The performance is classy, if not as grand as Gardiner's. For me, it is somewhat spoiled by Suzuki's sometimes too intrusive harpsichord continuo, but the singing and playing is generally first-class. Suzuki does a Gardiner, in that he performs the score in the original order with no antiphons. He also throws in the Mass that was included in the same publication, also nicely done. \r\n\r\nWilliam Christie and Les Arts Florissants do a half-way house between Gardiner and Parrott, based on a live performance that Christie gave. He includes some instrumental numbers from a Monteverdi contemporary. Some of Christie's numbers are good, but overall it doesn't match Gardiner or Suzuki. \r\n\r\nAnother minimalist performance if that of Jordi Savall and La Capella Reial de Catalunya. This is the continental equivalent of Parrott and is beloved of the Seventh Day Authenticists on this side of the Channel. Like Parrott, it is beautifully sung and played. And like Parrott it lacks appeal (for me anyway). It's nice to listen to, but the fact that I forgot to include it in my initial write-up says it all. \r\n\r\nThere are a number of recordings that I haven't heard. I know that Harry Christophers and The Sixteen have done it, in a reconstructed version claimed to be possibly Monteverdi's original concept (for Mantua). Nicky Harnoncourt had another go in the 1980s in live performance, but I've never even seen this one. Ditto Philip Pickett, whose performance reportedly vies with Parrott's for minimalism. \r\n\r\nSo, for me, Gardiner's San Marco version every time. It's not perfect, but then, whoever gets a major work like this completely Ã¢â‚¬Å“rightÃ¢â‚¬Â? It would certainly accompany me to my desert island.