United Kingdom Keble Early Music Festival  – Monteverdi: Sophie Bevan, Zoë Brookshaw (sopranos), Charles Daniel, Simon Wall, Rogers Covey-Crump (tenors), William Gaunt, Daniel Tate (basses), The Choir of Keble College, Oxford, The Choristers of New College, Oxford, English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble / Matthew Martin (conductor). Keble College Chapel, Oxford 23.2.2019. (CR)
Monteverdi – Vespers (1610)
To close this year’s Keble Early Music Festival, the director of the College’s Chapel Choir, Matthew Martin, directed a well-paced but sumptuous account of the first great choral work of the Baroque. The performance was necessarily comparatively measured in order to control the reverberant acoustic of the Chapel so as to avoid as much as possible the smudging of too polyphonic detail. Whether by design or default, that meant sacrificing some of the thrilling sonic tumult which can result from a more driven performance of some passages of this music, in favour of clearer textures by the Keble College Choir, such as in the broad (rather than jubilant) opening chorus ‘Deus in adjutorium’. But that enabled the striking harmonic progressions of the more block-like, chordal passages to stand out with more overawing effect, such as in the cadences of ‘Dixit Dominus’, or the emphatic iterations of ‘nisi’ and ‘frustra’ in the ten-part setting of ‘Nisi Dominus’, all drawing the listener into the sense of mystery and spiritual intensity which this liturgical compilation evokes.
Elsewhere the choir’s performance took on a sensuous lilt in those sections with triple-time meters or blossomed more delicately around the soloists as in ‘Laetatus sum’. The treble Choristers of New College joined the performance only for the Vespers’s last three sections, starting from the ‘Sonata Sopra Sancta Maria’, in which they discreetly and airily repeated their intercessions many times to the Virgin ‘ora pro nobis’ (‘pray for us’), subsumed in humility within the wider orchestral fantasia going around these simple chants. The presence of the trebles also offered a more angelic variety of timbre to certain sections of the concluding ‘Magnificat’, as though finally bearing the music aloft to heaven where the music is properly addressed. That contrasted effectively with the sonorous support of the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble, offering commanding gravitas throughout the performance, often well-integrated and unobtrusive, but the tones of the cornetts and trombones emerging from the overall instrumental textures movingly at telling moments.
The vocal soloists provided considerable variety in their contributions, raising the work to a somewhat more theatrical, even operatic dimension, appropriate for the composer who wrote the first masterpieces in the newly-found genre of opera at the outset of the 17th century. That was particularly the case with Charles Daniels’s often tense, even raw, projections in the lower tenor part, as in the expressive incantations required for ‘Dixit Dominus’, or the longer and more fervently sustained lines of ‘Audi, coelum’. Sophie Bevan also turned in a solidly dramatic account of her part, whether in her more vibrato-bound, effusive passages, or in more tender and chaste sequences as ‘Pulchra es’.
Zoë Brookshaw’s quieter soprano sections were a foil to Bevan’s, whilst Simon Wall contrasted with Daniels by tending to make a more subtly expressive impact in the higher tenor part, almost breathing, rather than projecting, the lines of ‘Nigra sum’ for example. It was a pity that the two tenors were positioned alongside each other for ‘Duo Seraphim’, and not further apart so as to simulate the wide cavernous vault of the skies as the heavenly figures call out ‘Sanctus’ to each other. Rogers Covey-Crump was somewhat tremulous and insecure as the third vocal part of that movement, as also in the cleverly echoed words of ‘Audi, coelum’, for which he was stationed behind the audience, back at the entrance to the Chapel. The basses William Gaunt and Daniel Tate made decent if not memorable contributions.
Altogether this was an assured interpretation of Monteverdi’s seminal choral work, resounding authoritatively in the colourful confusion of Keble College Chapel’s Victorian architecture, not so very different in style from the Byzantine Gothic of San Marco with which the composition is indelibly associated (even if not perhaps first performed there), and stirring Ruskinian thoughts about the Venetian provenance of both.