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Château de Versailles

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Reviewer: Lindsay Kemp

I’m never quite sure who buys classical concert DVDs; one viewing is usually enough, I would have thought, especially if there are normal audio versions available. So far, though, Raphaël Pichon and Pygmalion have not committed to record their meaty Vespers – toured to various venues in 2018-19 – so there is more point than usual to this particular release. Filmed at a concert (or possibly concerts – there are some telltale overdubs) in February 2019 in the Versailles Royal Chapel for the Chateau de Versailles Spectacles series, it focuses mainly on the stage business in a conventional but deft mix of long shots and group and individual close-ups, with its most vivid effects coming from an existing lighting scheme that uses colour, light and shade either to open up the space or close it down as appropriate. The pacing of it is busy but alert without being fussy, and on the whole works pretty well. The close-ups of the solo singers are definitely a bonus, nowhere more so than when it allows us to get next to Zachary Wilder’s animated ‘Audi coelum’, his eyes shooting heavenwards in wonder at every call from the echo tenor in the gallery – surely an Orfeo in the making.

These Vespers are performed in the familiar published order with chant antiphons added in the usual quasiliturgical way, though the drones under the opening ‘Pater noster’ and the ‘Virgo prudentissima’ before the Magnificat give them a somewhat Byzantine feel. There is also an extra piece, Monteverdi’s two-voice Sancta Maria succurre miseris, inserted before the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria; and, somewhat startlingly, a return at the end to the music of the ‘Deus et adiuvandam’ with new words. This last is presumably just to give (unnecessarily, in my view) a stronger ending than the Magnificat supplies, but an explanation of the other oddities would have been nice – the booklet doesn’t even mention them.

Pichon’s approach to the piece is not unlike that of John Eliot Gardiner, whose two DVD versions of the Vespers revel in the spaces of St Mark’s, Venice (Archiv, 5/03), and, er, the Versailles Royal Chapel (Alpha, 2/16). That means that the choral singing is substantial (36 voices), full-throated and firmly shaped by restless contrasts of texture, dynamic and diction. Often a legato line will serve as a springboard for the punched articulation of the next, and vice versa, and at times they even seem to overlap. It brings some impressive climaxes (the glorias at the end of the ‘Laetatus sum’ are thrilling) and some smooth moments of reflection. In addition to the excellent Wilder, there are some serene solos from soprano Eva Zaïcik and sturdy ones from tenor Emiliano Gonzalez Toro. It’s an assured, energetic and satisfying Vespers, then – I feel sure a studio recording will be along, and that when it comes it will be well worth hearing. But in the meantime the DVD does offer one precious joy: a violinist who appears to have modelled his facial hair on Monteverdi’s.

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