Monteverdi Vespers in Llandaff Cathedral

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Monteverdi: Charlotte Bowden, Jessica Cale (sopranos), Ruari Bowen, Tom Kelly, James Robinson (tenors), Dan D’Souza, William Stevens (baritones), Cardiff Polyphonic Choir, Réjouissance, His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts, David Miller, Matthew Nisbet, Eligio Luis Quinteiro (cittarone, theorbo), Andrew Wilson-Dickson (continuo) / David Young (conductor). Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff, 17.11.2018. (PCG)

MonteverdiVespers (1610)

The advent of Monteverdi’s Vespers in the 1960s as a work which could legitimately be performed by amateur choral societies coincided with the rise of the ‘authentic performance’ movement, which has led over the years to a positive plethora of rival scholarly editions. This might be regarded as surprising, when one considers that Monteverdi himself oversaw the publication of his score in 1610; but the volume in question clearly contains some music which falls outside the realm of the Vespers service, and in any event contains enough ambiguities to ensure that no two performances are ever likely to be exactly alike. The substantial sixteen-page programme (containing complete texts and translations) was provided for this performance. It contained an anonymous note on the origins of the work which neatly sidestepped what it tactfully described as ‘musicological controversy’. I have to say that the results here, no matter what the edition employed, were admirably suited to the forces involved. No attempt was made to imitate liturgical practice – added plainchant, for example – and this was entirely appropriate for a concert performance with pauses between movements to allow for the redistribution of the forces on the platform as required.

We were given all the movements usually assembled under the title of the ‘Monteverdi Vespers‘ with the more substantial setting of the concluding Magnificat for what Monteverdi’s score described as ‘nine voices and six instruments’. By that of course Monteverdi surely never actually meant a total of just fifteen performers. The list of instruments for the opening Toccata imported from his near-contemporary opera L’Orfeo certainly specifies a larger body of players; when these are employed en masse, the number of voices – and any performance in St Mark’s in Venice – would also have been necessarily augmented, even if not to the sixty-odd total listed in the programme. Decisions then have to be made as to when the enlarged choral forces are to be deployed, and those decisions here were eminently sensible. The dynamic range of the performance, with full choral and orchestral sounds set against solo singers with continuo accompaniment, sounded magnificent in the resonant acoustic of Llandaff cathedral, and the many contrasts of distance and spacing were admirably achieved.

The performance featured two distinct bodies of period instrumentalists. The players of Réjouissance were superbly reinforced by the stalwart group His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts, and the continuo was provided by three strings (one of them a magnificent giraffe-headed beast of a theorbo) and Andrew Wilson-Dickson on the keyboard. All the players acquitted themselves with style, adding ornamentation as required and with considerable ingenuity. From where I was sitting, some rows back in the nave, the individual strands were excellently distinguished and clear, and the high playing of the cornetts was stupendously virtuosic.

We were provided with an excellent roster of young soloists, who blended together as a group to good effect and also provided plenty of virtuosity in their own right. The three tenors Ruari Bowen, Tom Kelly and James Robinson, physically separated along the length of the cathedral choir stalls, were perfectly matched in their elaborate lines during Duo seraphim. In the final Magnificat the transposed lower pitch (the original is arguably unreasonably high for comfort) meant that the duet between the onstage soloist and offstage echo in the Gloria could be assigned to the two solo baritones Dan D’Souza and William Stevens rather than tenors – an unexpected effect, but it worked. The two sopranos Charlotte Bowden and Jessica Cale also curled around each other in their duet passages with a degree of unanimity which clearly demonstrated that all these sections had been carefully and imaginatively rehearsed. The choir could not be expected to match this clarity in their more florid passages (especially in a cathedral acoustic), and there were rare occasions when their delivery of the sustained notes was submerged beneath the more showy divisions above; but these questions of balance were never serious, and the sustained glory of the larger-scale choral writing was magnificently grand – as is indeed appropriate for the music.

The performance was given – correctly – without an interval. That gave the audience the chance to discover just how uncomfortable the wooden seats in Llandaff cathedral can become after an hour and a half. But it was pleasant to encounter music once again in this venue, especially a work which is so appropriate to this kind of acoustic. Another Cardiff performance of the Vespers, scheduled next spring for St David’s Hall, will have its work cut out to match the effect of this. A note from the conductor in the programme acknowledged financial assistance from a donor who ‘generously left his fortune to be used for the benefit of the people of Wales’. This event was most certainly a benefit to its listeners, who nearly filled the nave of the cathedral and cheered the performance enthusiastically at the end. Hopefully the cathedral management, who seemed some years ago to have set their faces against the use of the building for concerts and also abolished their professional choir, may now adopt a more enlightened policy to music. We really need a suitable venue for large-scale choral works in Cardiff, especially when they are as well performed as this.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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