Monteverdi’s Vespers of the Blessed Virgin at Plymouth Guildhall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Monteverdi: Plymouth Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, Cecilia Osmond & Esther Brazil (sopranos), Simon Ponsford (male alto), Ben Thapa & Robert Anthony Gardiner (tenors), Richard Bannan & Julian Dubreuil (basses) / Christopher Fletcher (conductor). Plymouth Guildhall. 26.11.2017. (PRB)

Plymouth Philharmonic Choir - credit Howard Perks
Plymouth Philharmonic Choir (c) Howard Perks

Monteverdi – Vespers of the Blessed Virgin (1610)

Monteverdi’s Vespers, which the composer published in 1610, has now become as much a stalwart of Baroque vocal repertoire as Handel’s Messiah, or Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. But despite the fact that Monteverdi’s work predates these two by over a hundred years at least, it is still the new kid on the block by virtue of the fact that the first complete public performance took place only back in the 1930s, spurred on, no doubt, by the post-war early-music brigade. This is all the more extraordinary given that Monteverdi’s Vespers probably is not a ‘work’ as such; the composer may not even have heard it given as one. In fact, the 1610 publication was entitled Missa …ac Vespera …cum nonnullis sacris concentibus (Mass and Vespers, with some Sacred Concertos). Admittedly, some movements are regular components of the Vespers format, but a service that is liturgically correct cannot itself be fashioned from Monteverdi’s example as it stands. That would appear to corroborate its original status. Furthermore, both in terms of instrumentation, which can be a fully-fledged Baroque ensemble of period instruments, or one with their modern equivalents, the Vespers can be performed either with just one voice to a part, or by a large choir of choral-society dimensions—and pretty much anything else in between. At the end of the day, though, it is for the conductor to make these initial decisions, and then to recreate a work that will ultimately have the same appeal as any large-scale one by Bach or Handel. Some further personal judgement will then be required, in order to arrive at the finished product.

Christopher Fletcher, the conductor of Plymouth Philharmonic Choir, conductor had clearly done all his homework and preparation well before rehearsals had even commenced. He realised that one of the essential tenets that make Messiah, for example, so effective, is the alternation of solo and choral numbers. By sharing a little of Monteverdi’s original chorus material with the soloists, Fletcher was not only adding to the effect of contrast, but, of course, slightly reducing the workload for his choir members, some of whom said afterwards that the Vespers was one of the hardest works they had ever sung. In terms of orchestra, Fletcher went with modern instruments here, which was the only sensible choice when one balances instrumental resources against a choir of over a hundred voices. With no other option than to use two electronic equivalents for the harpsichord and organ continuo, this worked really well on the night. Each respective player’s performance was totally idiomatic and within keeping, and volume levels always realistic. With reference the choir, even though the men’s section was somewhat disappointingly depleted, the conductor was still faced with the difficult task of ensuring brisk tempi, with the added complex rhythmic juxtapositions, while at the same time needing to manoeuvre a significantly large body in the process. But conductor and choir had obviously worked really hard on this in rehearsal, and when the orchestra was finally added, so that entries were largely taut and well-disciplined, and tempo changes negotiated mostly seamlessly.

Fletcher knew how vital it was that the opening should really send shivers down the spine, especially since this was probably the only familiar part for the most audience members. And what a magnificent sound it proved to be, so full of the beauty and majesty of Monteverdi’s music that we might have been magically transported to the splendour of St. Mark’s, Venice itself. Despite having rehearsed extensively only a few hours before performance time, the choir was on top form throughout, still managing to give of their all. The quality of the orchestral accompaniment, under the assured leadership of Mary Eade, made such a telling contribution, too.

Whereas most works the choir performs usually involve at most four or five soloists, on this occasion seven were needed. When bass-baritone James Birchall had to withdraw at the last minute, to be replaced by Julian Dubreuil, this could have added further to any tension in performance. As it was, all seven soloists sang with good style and control, whether individually, or in concerted numbers. First out of the blocks was tenor Ben Thapa, whose ‘Nigra Sum’ was particularly impressive, and showed an authentic grasp of the style. He managed the often melismatic and florid writing well, yet succeeded in not sounding like a muezzin caught in the act of calling worshippers to prayer while perched in some minaret on high.

The two sopranos combined most efficiently in ‘Pulchra es’, as did three of the male voices in the ensuing ‘Duo Seraphim’, only very slightly marred by some occasional problems in intonation. The two tenors made good use of the venue to simulate the antiphonal effect so beloved of St. Mark’s. Thapa positioned himself at the front of the balcony to share the ‘Audi Coelum’ with fellow-tenor Robert Anthony Gardiner still back on the stage; the vocal roulades, so reminiscent of the composer’s opera Orfeo, spun successfully from one to another across the spacious auditorium.

The female soloists were heard to good effect in the Sonata Sopra ‘Sancta Maria’ and Hymn: ‘Ave Maris Stella’, which opened Part II. The Canadian-born Cecilia Osmond slightly stole the show here from her fellow-sopranos. There was also some quite charming orchestral playing: strings juxtaposed with the wind section, itself featuring some with some especially-appealing playing by the double-reeds. This also signalled the appearance of male alto, Simon Ponsford, who produced a pleasing sound but did not quite match the others in overall projection.

The closing Magnificat was distinguished by some lovely singing from the ladies of the choir. It might have been better matched by the men, if, perhaps, there had been more of them to achieve greater sectional balance. However, after such music of ethereal quality, the short closing chorus made for a truly stirring conclusion to the evening, and the most enthusiastic extended ovation was very well deserved.

It would be all too easy to underestimate the choir’s performance on the night, for on many occasions they were divided into eight parts, which made for some significant shifts of positioning on the platform. Likewise, the soloists managed their frequent ups-and-downs, and seating rotation with the absolute minimum of fuss. If all this did not add extra stress to the performance, then an audience member was taken ill, and that slightly delayed the start of the second half. All that might just have tipped the balance when it comes to continuity and concentration. In the event, though, this slick and well-honed machine simply remained totally focussed and relaxed.

Plymouth Philharmonic Choir — perhaps a tad audaciously — refers to itself as ‘South West England’s Premier Choir’ on its website. I would, of course, be unable to attest to the veracity of that description, as this involves a large area of the country to cover. But, on last night’s showing, I would be more than happy to concede that they are definitely right up there at the top of the league. It is a testament not only to the dedication and support of the members themselves, but also to their conductor’s considerable drive and expertise. Together, they just seem to go from strength to strength every time, irrespective of what each new challenge holds for them.

Philip R Buttall

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