Italian Polychoral Splendour in the Cotswolds

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Viadana, Gabrieli, Monteverdi, Grandi, Palestrina: Clare Wilkinson (mezzo-soprano), William Purefoy (counter-tenor), Nicholas Hurndall Smith and Matthew Long (tenors), Charles Gibbs (bass), I Fagiolini, The English Cornett and Sackbutt Ensemble, Robert Hollingworth (director), St James’ Church, Chipping Campden, 12.5.2013. (RJ)

1612 Italian Marian Vespers
Viadana: Deus in Adiutorium
O dulcissima Maria
Psalms 109, 112, 121, 126, 147
G. Gabrieli: Toccata, Fantasia sul quarto tono
In ecclesiis
Monteverdi: Nigra sum
Ave maris stella
Salva regina
Grandi: Plorabo die ac nocte
Palestrina (arr. Rognoni): Pulchra es

Go to any performance by I Fagiolini and you know you are in for a surprise. What other ensemble would think of combining Renaissance music with a circus performance or serenading diners with Monteverdi love madrigals? In many ways their contribution to the Chipping Campden Music Festival was just as imaginative: the recreation of the Office of Vespers for the feast of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary from around 1612, the year that Lodivico Grossi da Viadana wrote his collection of Vespers music. Forget Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers which would have rarely been performed in the version that we know by dint of their complexity; this is the real thing.

Unlike Monteverdi’s masterpiece Viadana intended his Vespers not for a small ensemble of singers who performed solos and together, but for up to four choirs, the first consisting of five solo singers. The service consists of an introductory versicle and response, five psalms each with its own antiphon, a hymn and the Magnificat with antiphon. Antiphons were originally sung before and after the psalms they accompanied, but the repeat was often replaced with vocal or instrumental pieces, as was the case this evening. The result was a rich tapestry of music including pieces by Viadana’s distinguished contemporaries.

The proceedings began with Gabrieli’s Toccata for chamber organ followed by the chanting of the versicles and response by both choirs. After the antiphon Dum esset rex by the large choir came the Dixit Dominus in which the choir of five soloists (the concerto choir) alternated with the larger choir with both choirs coming together for the Gloria Patri. Mezzo-soprano Clare Wilkinson ‘s clear melodious voice rang out in the motet O dulcissima Maria with theorbo accompaniment.

Laudate Pueri (Psalm 112) was followed by reflective organ music by Gabrieli again, his Fantasia sul quarto tono. Laetatus sum (Psalm 121) was preceded by the antiphon Nigra sum sed formosa and followed, very appropriately, by an extended version of the antiphon in the form of a motet by Monteverdi for tenor solo. After Nisi Dominus (Psalm 126) the first half concluded with Alessandro Grandi’s Plorabo die ac nocte with expressive solos from counter-tenor William Purefoy and Clare Wilkinson.

After the final psalm Lauda Jerusalem (Psalm 147) we bade farewell to Viadana and turned to his contemporaries. Palestrina’s Pulchra es for cornet and organ had a hauntingly atmospheric quality while the office hymn Ave Maris Stella from Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers had a reassuringly familiar ring. This composer was also represented by his Salve Regina sung with fervour and passion by tenors Nicholas Hurndall Smith and Matthew Long.

But it was Giovanni Gabrieli who had the final word (or melody?). The Magnificat always formed the climax to the Office of Vespers and his version with its central vocal ‘capella choir’ flanked by solo singers and instruments was magnificent. Here the sackbuts came into their own, as they also did in the concluding extra-liturgical motet In Ecclesiis with its rousing alleluias.

The evening was nothing less than a triumph and a great tribute to I Fagiolini’s director Robert Hollingsworth who possesses not only a questing imagination but also an attention to detail which makes his recreations so very convincing. My only regret was that the main choir (with their chorus master Richard Stephens) were hidden behind the platform accommodating the musicians and soloists, so their singing, though excellent, did not come over as clearly as it might have done if they had been on a raised dais. However I appreciate that St James’ Church does not have the same resources or space as St Marks in Venice (which ought to be I Fagiolini’s next port of call!).

On the other hand St James’ had several advantages, notably a sympathetic acoustic, a reverent atmosphere and a resonance with the past. Whether Renaissance polyphony had a place here after the Reformation is perhaps a matter for speculation, but it certainly added meaning and visual impact to I Fagiolini’s performance making it an exceptional event even by the high standards of the Chipping Campden Music Festival. The Festival continues until 18th May.

Roger Jones

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