Mind-blowing musicality, technical skills and stamina in Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Monteverdi, Vespers of 1610: Charlotte Mobbs, Katy Hill (sopranos), Jeremy Budd, Mark Dobell (tenors), Ben Davies, Eamonn Dougan (basses), The Sixteen / Harry Christophers (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 15.5.2024. (AK)

The Sixteen in their Barbican Hall rehearsal

I am of a certain age with several music degrees under my belt. In spite of my diligence, this is the first time that I have come across Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. The historical importance, masterly polyphony and astonishing beauty of the Vespers makes me wonder if music education covers all our invaluable inheritance from earlier times.

I could not have had a better introduction to Monteverdi’s masterpiece – to be precise, master pieces – than the superb performance by The Sixteen under their founding director Harry Christophers. Celebrating their 45th year since their first formal performance in May 1979, immense knowledge and respect for baroque style is in The Sixteenth’s DNA even if only a few of the current members were alive – let alone performed – forty-five years ago.

Another important anniversary for The Sixteen is the 10th year of their Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 CD release in 2014. The same year they toured the work with live performances; it is likely that some of the current performers were part of the 2014 celebrations.

There are three essays in the beautifully printed programme notes – an introduction by Harry Christophers (talking about the 2014 CD), ‘Monteverdi Vespers of 1610’ by Lindsay Kemp 2014, ‘Monteverdi in Mantua’ by John Wenham 2019 – but they leave many questions unanswered.

Why is The Sixteen called as it is? Did they consist of sixteen singers or sixteen musicians including singers and instrumentalists back in May 1979? This time we had twenty singers and eighteen instrumentalists on stage.

Monteverdi’s orchestra for the Vespers including the Magnificat consisted of cornets, trombones, strings, recorders, and continuo. However, specific instrumentation was provided only in a few of the movements. It is up to the editors or performers to decide what instruments to use and what instruments to add to Monteverdi’s orchestra. Whose edition was used by The Sixteen?

Monteverdi provided two alternative versions for the Magnificat – both dutifully printed by publisher Amadino in 1610 – one in six parts, and a more elaborate versions in seven parts. The Lindsay Kemp essay in the programme notes states that ‘tonight’s performance takes the usual course of selecting the longer and more complex version’. Kemp’s essay is dated ten years ago that is 2014; the question arises which Magnificat was performed in May 2024.

(Having studied the score post-concert, I believe that most probably we heard the seven-part version.)

Monteverdi’s 1610 printed Vesper collection includes fourteen compositions: nine pieces are based on liturgy (Domine ad adjuvandum, Dixit Dominus, Laudate pueri, Laetatus sum, Nisi Dominus, Lauda Jerusalem, Ave Maris stella, Magnificat a 7, Magnificat a 6), and further five pieces are added to enhance the performance (with the so-called four sacred concertos: Nigra sum, Pulchre es, Duo Seraphim, Audi coelum as well as the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria). The five pieces which are not part of the Marian Vesper liturgy are placed between designated Vesper pieces but, apparently, some performances leave out these five insertions. Fortunately, The Sixteen performed all thirteen pieces (including one of the Magnificats) and they took us to the realm of indescribable beauty.

Their stage presentation was pleasing to the eyes and aided the sonic experience. Singers and instrumentalists sometimes stood, sometimes sat; the soloists sometimes sang from the front of the stage, sometimes from the back (or further beyond). None of these actions were gimmicks to sustain audience attention, the choreography perfectly matched music and words. In addition, by accident or design, the tasteful blue dresses worn by the soprano soloists could have stepped out from a painting in Monteverdi’s time.

Harry Christophers clearly thoroughly knows, loves, and lives the piece. He conducted without a baton, with minimal and sensitive movements. His tempi were well chosen – matching words, Monteverdi’s polyphony, and the Barbican Hall environment – and his occasional very slight pauses enhanced the texture.

The musicality, technical skills and stamina of the vocal and orchestral forces seen and heard on this occasion is mind-blowing. The six excellent solo singers were part of the choir of twenty, the orchestra players included virtuosos rarely heard. In the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria movement the chorus gently repeating the hymn Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis (Holy Mary, pray for us) eleven times over the virtuoso concerto passages of violins (Colin Scobie, Sarah Moffat) and cornetts (Helen Roberts, Jamie Savan) will stay in memory for a long time. As, indeed, the soprano duos, tenor duos, vocal solo and choral movements will too.

It is a shame that this performance was not filmed for posterity.  However, BBC Radio 3 relayed the performance live from the Barbican and it is available for listeners for four weeks from 15th May. Do not miss it!

Agnes Kory

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