A Day of Monteverdian Delights in Berlin



Musikfest Berlin [6] – Monteverdi, Rossi, Marini, and Plainsong: Dorothee Mields, Hannah Morrison (sopranos), Thomas Hobbs, Andrew Staples, Volker Arndt (tenors), Andrew Redmond, Stefan Dreximeier (basses), RIAS Chamber Choir, Capella de la Torre/Justin Doyle (conductor). St Hedwig’s Cathedral and Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin, 16.9.2017 (MB)

Justin Doyle Antritt; photo credit - Matthias Heyde

Justin Doyle Antritt (c) Matthias Heyde

MonteverdiL’Orfeo: Toccata
Plainsong – Introit, ‘Stabant juxta crucem’
MonteverdiMissa ‘In illo tempore’ – with Salomone Rossi: Sinfonia grave in G minor, Monteverdi: Adoramus te, Christe
MonteverdiVespro della Beata Virgine – interspersed with Salomone Rossi: Sinfonia IX in F major, Sonata XII sopra la Bergamasca in G major, Canzon per sonar a 4 in G major; Biagio Marini: Sonata in Eco, in G major, Sinfonia ‘La Giustiniana’ in G minor; Rossi: Sinfonia in G minor; Plainsong – Antiphon, ‘Nolite me considerare’

A day of Monteverdian delights, which, for me, at least will surely prove the highlight and climax of his 450th anniversary year. First, I interviewed conductor Justin Doyle about this and, more broadly, his work as new Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the RIAS Chamber Choir (see elsewhere). Then to the Bebelplatz nearby, to St Hedwig’s Cathedral, Prussia’s first Roman Catholic church following the Reformation, the land given by Frederick the Great expressly for that purpose. (Toleration is, or at least was, easier when one was probably an atheist. How things have changed, eh, Richard Dawkins…) There under its great dome, modelled on the Pantheon, we heard the Missa ‘In illo tempore’. Then around the corner to the Pierre Boulez Saal, first for a talk by Silke Leopold, followed by a performance of what remains the composer’s most celebrated work, collection, call it what you will: the Vespers of the Blessed Virgin, published in 1610 along with the Mass, and dedicated to Pope Paul V.

The composer’s first opera – the first great opera – L’Orfeo stands in many ways behind the collection. A modified version of its celebrated opening Toccata may be heard in the opening number – or whatever we want to call it! – of the Vespers. And so it would be here, of course. However, it was a nice surprise here also to hear it played from the cathedral gallery, almost as a call to worship or at least to listening, prior to the Plainsong introi, ‘Stabant iuxta crucem Jesu mater eius’. It sounded, the acoustic notwithstanding, far livelier – and not only in speed – to the rather dutiful account heard earlier in the festival from John Eliot Gardiner. We were, if so inclined, thereby reminded both of the Christianity of Orfeo and the theatricality of Monteverdi’s church music, all the world both a stage and a church. During the introit, the choir took their places beneath the organ pipes, facing the altar, ready for the Mass itself. A flowing ‘Kyrie’, accompanied by both organ and orchestra, benefited from the warmth of the acoustic, as did the ‘Gloria’, which ended with a fine, unexaggerated sense of jubilation. The performing style throughout sounded both suited to and shaped by the particular acoustic of the building: something one might have hoped would go without saying, yet in many performances, alas not. As Monteverdi’s prima prattica counterpoint unfolded, natural, almost unassuming, one realised that the move, never complete, to the seconda prattica was not all gain; no step in musical, or other, history ever is. I loved the imploring quality of the close, ‘Miserere nobis’, to the motet, Adoramus te, Christe, enough to have one feel one should be kneeling. Yet it was the lack of theatricality for its own sake that perhaps spoke most clearly: a trust and belief in the power and, yes, genius of Monteverdi’s music.

For the Vespers, in the very different setting of the Pierre Boulez Saal, the performance unfolded on different – physical – levels. Once again, the instrumental call to worship, to listen, to whatever it might be, was made from the first gallery, with the tenor injunction, ‘Deus in adiutorium meum intende!’ heard from the level above. The choir itself and, for the most part, the instrumental ensemble was at ‘ground’ level. In general, the home of the overtly, traditionally ‘sacred’ liturgical music, whereas the more ‘secular’ – and yes, I know the distinction is essentially false – concertos would be heard, at least in their solo parts, from above. The two seraphim, ‘Duo Seraphim’, were heard from higher still: a return, perhaps, to less unambiguous distinction between sacred and profane. Or one could simply experience such distinctions as experiments in spatial awareness. Who is to say what they ‘are’, whether in Monteverdi, in Gabrieli, or indeed in Boulez and Stockhausen?  At any rate, a distinction such as that brought home in the ‘Laudate pueri’ between choral sopranos and the soloist above was meaningful, verbally and musically.

The ‘collection’ becomes a ‘work’ in performance – or can be heard to do so, even when, as here, it was joined by instrumental pieces from Monteverdi’s colleagues, Salamone Rossi (Mantua) and Biagio Marini (Venice). It seemed almost to encompass the rest of Monteverdi’s work too: not just Orfeo at the opening (and in the Magnificat’s reminder of Orpheus in Hades), but the courtly, madrigalian soprano duetting of ‘Pulchra es’. Or is it later opera, even Poppea, of which we hear a foretelling? It need not be either or, and certainly was not in practice; sopranos Dorothee Mields and Hannah Morrison would clearly have been comfortable in any or all guises. ‘Swing’ might be an anachronism too far, not least since it perhaps misleads; what one needs above all is security of rhythm and metre. Nevertheless, it was a joy to hear something approximating to it in the cries of ‘Jerusalem’ from ‘Laetatus sum’. Likewise the contrasting plaintive quality, again never unduly exaggerated, never disruptive, later on. Here and elsewhere, Doyle and the Choir, well trained, and thus able to unleash its abundant musicality, offered readings that were not only thoughtful but delightful.

So too with the tenor seraphim, Thomas Hobbs and Andrew Staples; again, rightly or wrongly, I could not help but think of the world of Poppea. Gender is a complex matter in Monteverdi; after all, it is also a tenor who sings ‘Nigra sum’ (and very well he did so too). The tenor echo (Staples) from the heavens in ‘Audi coelum’ beautifully complemented Hobbs from the gallery below: distant, different, yet changing too, according to the demands of the text. There is almost an endless variety of ways to perform this music, but everything here had been thought through, not so as to limit but so as to enable spontaneity and, yes, drama in performance. When the choir responded, ‘Omnes hanc ergo sequamur…’, to what it had heard, it was almost as if a prayer were being answered, yet the mystery of grace remained. There are no easy answers here, musical or theological. An instrumental response seemed just the thing in turn, a fruity bassoon (sorry, dulcian) from the Capella de la Torre ensemble delighting in turn.

Following the interval, an instrumental invitation to dance-cum-worship was extended, leading us in to the extraordinary ‘Sonata sopra sancta Maria’. Female members of the choir reappeared, whilst the soloists appeared lightly lit (and lightly conducted) in what one might have taken for alcoves, mediating apparitions of saints themselves. Responses might be heard from all over, just as in the church or the world themselves. Stockhausen could eat his heart out – and most likely would have done. The ‘Ave maris stella’ sounded as a hymn in more than name, blossoming into something akin to a presentiment of a Bach chorale prelude, and even beyond, to Classical variation form. As for the closing ‘Magnificat’, I am not sure that it is not an even finer setting than Bach’s – and became even less sure here. This might not be a ‘work’ in the modern sense; if so, so much the worse for the modern sense. Whatever the truth of that, this was a crowning glory, in which, so it seemed, everything came together, greater than the sum of its parts. As an encore, we were treated to an aural glimpse of ‘what happened next’: Cavalli’s Salve regina, almost Schubert to Monteverdi’s Mozart, with none of the stiffness that often befalls performance of music that is far more difficult than it might often look or sound.

Mark Berry

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