I have adored, more to the point thirsted for, his music since I first heard it, as an A-level student, the 1610 Vespers one of my set works. (Yes, I have since learned, indeed I learned then, that 'work' was definitely to be placed in inverted commas, especially in this case.) We listened to John Eliot Gardiner from St Mark’s, but I found the performance, indeed the whole approach, rather stiff. I managed to borrow a copy of Gardiner’s earlier recording, and liked that rather more; I still do, unfashionably. However, I still know of no single performance or recording that conveys more than a little of what I imagine of the intimacy, the grandeur, the eroticism, the piety, the richness of verbal and musical meaning: of those and so many other qualities. Perhaps that is as it should be: the ‘work’ is ‘impossible’ to perform in the best sense(s).
Getting to know some other of Monteverdi’s works during those A-level years, I encountered Zefiro torna, which made a lasting impression – although not nearly so much as when I discovered Nadia Boulanger’s legendary recording of this and other madrigals.
Other sacred music seemed almost to cast a magic spell upon me. It remains the sacred œuvre that says most to me before Bach’s – and yet is so utterly different from his in almost every way. Sample, immerse, never ignore.
I came to the operas later: Poppea, then Ulisse, then Orfeo. I actually knew Alexander Goehr’s Arianna before any of them, being lucky enough to attend a performance in Cambridge. (I even played a tiny, tiny role, or deluded myself that I did, in the performance and, I think, the recording. A friend was working in the studio on the manipulation of the Kathleen Ferrier Lament to be incorporated at the heart of Goehr’s inventive new drama, and I had to listen, as a second pair of ears, for the pitch to be correct.) It was after that that I plucked up the courage to write to him, concerning his father, Walter’s early performances, and he kindly sent me cassettes, including Walter’s Philharmonia Poppea. The knowledge that there was someone else in Cambridge who loved both Monteverdi and Schoenberg emboldened me to listen to more of both and to listen to, indeed to read, more Goehr too.
It is now perhaps those operas, and perhaps above all Ulisse of which I think most often when I think of Monteverdi. Ulisse’s Shakespearean range and depth have rarely, if ever, been surpassed. If they have, then it is surely only by Mozart and Wagner. But I am sure my feelings, my provisional judgements, will change; I hope they will. Monteverdi is, after all, for life, not just for A-level.