The Splendour of Monteverdi’s Vespers in a First Rate Performance

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Monteverdi: Soloists, Goldsmiths Choral Union, Hertfordshire Baroque Soloists, QuintEssential Sackbut & Cornett Ensemble/Brian Wright (conductor), Cadogan Hall, London, 16.3.2016. (RB)

Monteverdi, Vespers of 1610

Rachel Ambrose Evans, Ruth Provost – Sopranos
Benjamin Williamson – Countertenor
Peter Davoren, Peter Harris – Tenors
Nicholas Mogg, Timothy Murphy – Basses

Goldsmiths Choral Union is one of London’s leading amateur choirs. For this concert they were joined by a group of leading Baroque soloists together with two groups of period instrumentalists for one of the towering works of the 17th Century. GCU’s Music Director, Brian Wright, was the conductor for the evening, providing assured oversight and direction for the assembled forces.

Monteverdi’s Vespers for the Blessed Virgin were first published in Venice in 1610 when the composer was working in the ducal court of Mantua and auditioning for the post of maestro di cappella at St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. It is a monumental work which includes an extraordinary assimilation of old and new musical styles. It comprises psalms, sacred concertos and motets and concludes with a sonata, hymn and a seven-part setting of the Magnificat. The Vespers of 1610 stands out as the most ambitious work of religious music before Bach and it provides an extraordinary bridge between the music of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. There are arguments as to whether Monteverdi intended the work as something to be performed as a complete whole, or as a resource book containing music in different styles which could be drawn upon as the occasion demanded. This may have lead to the work lying dormant for many years: the first full public performances of the Vespers did not take place until the 1930’s and the work became increasingly familiar to modern audiences as the post-war early music movement gathered pace.

Bright Wright did an excellent job steering the assembled forces through Monteverdi’s shifts in tempo and rhythm in the psalms while ensuring the continually inventive contrapuntal lines retained their freshness and spontaneity. The fanfares in the opening ‘Deus in adjutorium’ had brilliance and urgency and the dance sections had the necessary stately elegance. The choir and soloists rose the challenge of the composer’s intricate vocal gymnastics in ‘Dixit Dominus’ and ‘Laudate pueri’. I would have welcomed greater vocal resonance in ‘Nisi Dominus’ and the antiphonal responses could perhaps have been more clearly defined. However, I enjoyed some of the vibrant colours and dancing rhythms which the choir and instrumentalists brought to this movement. The opening of ‘Lauda Jerusalem’ was powerful and triumphant although I wondered if Wright and GCU could have brought a greater sense of rhythmic vibrancy to the animated choral sequences. There was excellent interplay between the choir and the soloists throughout and Wright made the most of the striking dramatic effects and contrasts in the score. I particularly enjoyed Peter Harris and Peter Davoren’s handling of the composer’s echo effects (Davoren took on the principal vocal role on stage while Harris provided the off stage echoes, accompanied by Jamie Akers on Theorbo).

The soloists for the most part did an excellent job with the composer’s motets and sacred concertos. Peter Harris brought a flexible lyricism and lightness of tone to ‘Nigra sum’ and handled the vocal flourishes with ease. Rachel Ambrose Evans and Ruth Provost produced beautifully sustained vocal lines and brought a warm sensual feel to ‘Pulchra es’ whilst making highly expressive use of dissonance. Harris and Davoren were joined by bass Nicholas Mogg for ‘Duo Seraphim’. All of the soloists were on top of the composer’s intricate vocal pyrotechnics and I loved the handling of the sublime suspensions. There was also some highly expressive word painting, for example in the evocation of the mystery of the Trinity. Countertenor Benjamin Williamson produced a rich and well projected sound in ‘Ave Maris Stella’: he achieved subtle and striking variations in tone colour, which were enhanced by the sensitive accompaniment from the strings and recorders.

The two groups of instrumentalists took centre stage in the ‘Sonata Sopra Santa Maria’: Diane Terry and Julia Black played the lively violin parts with gusto and vied well with the wind players as they moved seamlessly from duple to triple time in Monteverdi’s increasingly animated dance sequences. John Eliot Gardiner described the final seven-part Magnificat as “the apotheosis of Monteverdi’s mixture of old and new’. Choir, soloists and instrumentalists combined forces to potent effect as we heard dazzling virtuoso singing from the soloists, ebullient playing from the instrumentalists and spirited singing from the choir in the final Gloria.

Overall, this was a first rate performance of one of the masterpieces of the Baroque repertoire.

Robert Beattie

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