Stokowski does Monteverdi's Vespers

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J. R. Robinson

Apr 13, 2003, 4:09:06 PM4/13/03
Claudio Monteverdi: <Vespro della beata Vergine, 1610>

Miriam Stewart, soprano; Dorothy Clark, contralto
William Miller, tenor; Bruce Foote, baritone
Paul Pettinga, organ

Oratorio Society Chorus
University of Illinois Symphony Orchestra
Leopold Stokowski, conductor

Recorded live in 1952, presumably at or near the University of

ReDiscovery 016 (transferred from LPs)

The ReDiscovery Web site fails to mention that this performance
comprises only about two-thirds of the <Vespers> as it is
commonly assembled today. It includes Domine ad adjuvandum, Nigra
sum, Lauda Jerusalem, Ave Maris Stella, Dixit Dominus, Sancta
Maria ora pro nobis, Pulchra es, and the Magnificat. It does not
include Laudate pueri, Laetatus sum, Duo Seraphim, Nisi Dominus,
Audi coelum, the opening Deus in adjutorium, or any antiphons.

This 1952 Stokowski/Illini recording of Monteverdi's <Vespro
della beate Vergine> preserves a one-off performance unlike any
of the dozen or so other performances of the Vespers that I've
heard and, in many ways, unlike any of the Stokowski-led
performances of anything I've heard. My general impression is of
a bunch of dedicated but not exceptionally talented performers
playing and singing their asses off for their celebrated and
controversial guest conductor, who responds with uncharacteristic
restraint and fidelity, resisting what must have been a powerful
urge to inflate and Stokowski-ize the music in the way for which
he is famous/infamous in Bach. In fact, the music as presented
here seems somehow simpler and less busy than usual. Whether
that's the result of the orchestration used (which is presumably
by Ghedini), Stokowski's doing, the not-too-detailed recording,
or my imagination, I don't know, but the performance has a
rudimentary, back-to-basics quality that, in its way, strikes me
as being musical and faithful to the spirit of the music. The
energy that Stokowski normally expends on "enhancing" the music,
here seems to be re-channeled and used to maintain focus and
concentration -- which, in the religious context of the work,
comes across as a rapt, devotional quality. Everyone involved
seems totally committed to the odd fellow with the funky hair at
the podium.

Stokowski may have restrained himself and kept his hands off the
score (so far as I can tell, which ain't far), but his
fingerprints are all over the phrasing of the big tunes and the
character of the instrumental solos. Say what you will about
Stokowski in other respects, but he does have a way with big
tunes. Nowhere is this more evident than in the various
instrumental solos over hushed chorus in the middle section of
the Magnificat -- the highlight of this performance for me.
(Many of the solos taken by brass in most performances I've heard
are here taken by woodwinds. I don't know if that's Ghedini's
idea or Stokowski's, but it works for me.) Stokowski must have
had a fair amount of rehearsal time for this performance, for I
find it difficult to believe that the soloists of the University
of Illinois Symphony Orchestra could have played their solos so
affectingly as they did here without some serious guidance from

The chorus is larger than is common nowadays, with perhaps 40 or
so voices at full force, but it sounds relatively small by 1952
standards. The chorus is not particularly refined and sounds
rather opaque (exacerbated by the recorded sound), but its
members are united in their enthusiasm and dedication and exhibit
a high level of focus and concentration. Like the chorus, the
orchestra is not so large as you'd expect for the period. Its
members play well, and, as I've already suggested, the
instrumental soloists do their conductor and their university
proud. The vocal soloists sing in a fuller, somewhat more
operatic style than you would hear today, but they are generally
tasteful to the extent of their abilities. The tenor is a good
and interesting singer, but the rest are, to varying degrees,
less good and less interesting -- none of them make me cringe or
anything, and they give it that good old college try, but their
ambition often exceeds their talent.

The recorded sound is somewhat woolly and opaque and lacking in
detail, and it is a bit distorted in places, but it is not in any
way offensive; that is, it is not harsh or strident or
egregiously balanced -- though some of the instrumental solos are
conspicuously spotlit. On the whole, the sound is pretty good by
1952 standards, especially considering that it is a live
recording produced and recorded, as I understand it, by the
University of Illinois itself. I've not heard the original LP
release, but the LP-to-CD transfer seems to have been done with
plenty of tender loving care by ReDiscovery. It sounds a touch
over-filtered to my ears, but, to be fair, I think most
historical transfers sound over-filtered.

Much more than just a historical curiosity, this is a performance
that rises above its unexceptional talent, its obsolete
scholarship, and its primitive recorded sound, making up for in
passion and dedication what it lacks in refinement and
sophistication. In a nutshell, this is a performance that's so
un-HIP it's hip.

J. R. Robinson
Denver, Colorado

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