Claudio Monteverdi's Selva morale e spirituale (Moral and Spiritual Forest, intriguingly) is not a work but a collection of sacred pieces published by the composer in 1641, his 74th year. The music reflects the later part of his career as music director at St. Mark's in Venice, which was not then a cathedral but the chapel associated with the nearby Doge's palace. Accordingly, it contains music in various genres: a mass in the old a cappella Renaissance style, motets, Magnificats, liturgical pieces, what would soon be called sacred solo concertos and madrigals, and more. The original ordering is unclear (the pieces might be loosely alphabetical, with the solo-vocal works broken out), and the British choir The Sixteen and conductor Harry Christophers have done well to mix the pieces up on their three-volume survey of set, of which this is the last volume. A good deal of the attraction of the music lies in its variety, and this volume includes everything from a superb dual-choir Magnificat (track 12), to solo-choral settings that employ the language Monteverdi almost single-handedly created in constantly imaginative ways, to a one-of-a-kind solo madrigal adapted, with new Latin text, from the famed Lamento d'Arianna (aka, Lamento dell'Arianna, or Ariadne's Lament), the sole survivor of Monteverdi's lost second opera. Ariadne's lament for the departed Theseus, a masterful use of counterpoint to express strong tragic emotion, is transformed into a "Pianto della Madonna," a plaint of Mary seeing the crucified Jesus. Monteverdi is not really The Sixteen's specialty, and listeners will likely find things to like and things to dislike in their performance. The choir's clean enunciation and tonal precision really put the text across, which is all to the good with this music, and Christophers finds the right dimensions for these works. The same is not always true of his soloists; you might want more power than you get from soprano Grace Davidson in the Pianto della Madonna, and in general the singers are low-key. Most of The Sixteen's numerous admirers, however, will find this a rewarding addition to their collections.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim