MONTEVERDI – Vespers 1610
Baroque Voices / St.Mary of the Angels Choir / Academia Sancta Mariae Ensemble
Robert Oliver (director)
St. Mary of the Angels Church
Boulcott St., Wellington
Saturday August 14th 2010
No work has inspired more disagreements among both scholars and musicians regarding both its history and performance practice than Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. The British musicologist Denis Arnold once wrote about the work, “To perform it is to court disaster. To write about it is to alienate some of one’s best friends”. Happily for Wellington audiences, no such strictures seemed to hang over the head of Musica Sacra concert series director Robert Oliver, who organised and directed two performances of the work in the splendidly atmospheric precincts of St Mary of the Angels Church, marking the 400th anniversary of the music’s publication in Venice. Oliver took what some people still considered to be a courageous step by performing the work with ten solo singers, one to a part, drawn from Pepe Becker’s Baroque Voices group, and accompanied by an ensemble of baroque strings, cornets and sackbuts, two organs and two theorbos. I was told by one of the singers that a friend’s reaction to the “one-singer-to-a-part” idea was expressed in tones of sympathetic disbelief. However Oliver’s faith in his “virtuoso singers and players with a brilliant command of all the instruments and techniques” (a quote from the programme notes) was richly vindicated by the splendours of the ensuing performance.
Oliver had directed a version of the work previously in Wellington a number of years ago with a choir of nearly thirty singers and a mixture of baroque and modern instruments, but felt that, with the advantages of more recent research into Monteverdi’s original intentions, plus the increased skills of early instrument players, the time was nigh to tackle the work afresh with up-to-date knowledge and performance practices. The aim was to reproduce more closely the sound that Monteverdi was believed to have had in mind for the work. The result was, in a word, stunning – singers and instrumentalists surpassed themselves in evoking a sound-world that seemed at one and the same time of the period and timeless, casting a potent spell over the imaginations and sensibilities of the audience members throughout the evening. Such occasional roughnesses as there were seemed so infrequent as to be of little consequence when set against the sweep and power of the whole, qualities which continually transcended the earthly and invoked the divine.
The church’s antiphonal potentialities were nicely realised right from the beginning, the St Mary of the Angels’ tenor choir voices intoning the opening “Deus in adiutorium” from the choir-loft at the rear of the church, to which the full ensemble of singers and instrumentalists replied from the front across the spaces, investing the words “Domine ad adiuvandum me festina” (Lord, make haste to help me) with truly age-old fervour and exotic colour. From this moment on the performance never flagged, the solo singers confident and nearly always accurate and secure with both their soaring lines and their often treacherously decorative impulses of melismatic energy, and the instrumental playing lustrously-toned and scalp-tinglingly characterful. Having solo voices gave the vocal lines such creative character, in the slower polyphonies the strands both blending and activating each other’s timbral differences, while in the quicker music the flavours and colours of the combinations produced occasionally an almost kaleidoscopic effect.
Sopranos Pepe Becker and Jayne Tankersley relished both their duet-style combinations and the more antiphonally-placed exchanges, their very different voices producing a real frisson of interaction, very marked, naturally enough, in their big duet Pulchra es, whose music I thought had a wonderfully charged eroticism. Pepe Becker floated her voice gloriously at “Averte oculos”, and Jayne Tankersley, so physically expressive by way of response, brought a sense of urgency to “Me avolare fecerunt”, her body appearing to physically choreograph the intensities of what her voice was doing in an extremely involving way. In other places, such as during Psalm 112’s Laudate Pueri Dominum (beautifully-sustained tones from both singers at “Ut collocet eum cum principibus”) and also throughout Lauda Jerusalem (Psalm 147), the antiphonal interactions and dovetailings of the sopranos made for a wholly sensual sound-effect, in fact highlighting what the rest of the ensemble was also doing so delightfully. Altos Andrea Cochrane and Christopher Warwick had fewer exposed lines, but made the most of their opportunities, most notably in the Hymn Ave Maris Stella, where each sang a verse most mellifluously, and also within the concluding Magnificat, where their steady, sustained tones provided a perfect foil for the more energetic and decorative lines of the tenors and basses.
The last-mentioned played their part as well, with the tenor parts particularly prominent. Both John Beaglehole and John Fraser contributed strong, sonorous tones to the many ensembles, and fearlessly tackled their various solos, most of which were resplendent with decorative detail. John Beaglehole made a strong beginning to the motet Nigra Sum, his voice confidently projected and nicely focused, surviving an uncomfortable patch of intonation at “Flores apparuerunt” to recover his poise somewhat for “Tempus putationis advenit”. Beaglehole and Fraser brought the two questioning Seraphims beautifully to life at ‘Duo Seraphim” before being joined by a third tenor, Philip Roderick, for the affirmation of the Blessed Trinity in heaven. And in the Motet Audi Coelum Beaglehole’s ecstatic phrases praising Mary, Mother of God, were echoed by Fraser off-stage to evocative effect amid tumultuous interjections by half-a-dozen of the soloists with continuo (it sounded as though there were more), beginning at the word “Omnes”, and continuing to the end, including the gentler “Benedicta es”, sung here with richly-focused tones and finely-honed ensemble. If basses David Morriss and Chris Burcin, along with baritone Dimitrios Theodoridis, had less spectacularly exposed material to sing, they still registered a powerful presence, blending beautifully in Dixit Dominus (Psalm 109) at “Judicabit in nationibus”, and contributing strongly-etched lines to Laudate Pueri Dominum (Psalm 112) as well as displaying some thrilling muscularity at “Quia fecit” in the concluding Magnificat.
With true-toned contributions during the Antiphons from the St.Mary of the Angels Choir, directed by Stephen Rowley, a feast of resplendent singing was dished up for our delight throughout, happily matched by the burnished splendour of the instrumental playing from the Academia Sanctae Mariae ensemble, and associated players. Earlier in the year at a Te Papa concert which featured Renaissance madrigals we’d had a taste of Peter Reid’s evocative cornetto playing – but here, with two other cornetto players, as well as sackbuts, recorders and theorbos (enormous lute-like fretted instruments), along with strings and two organs, the potential for instrumental colour and visceral excitement seemed almost too good to be true. The standing ovation which greeted the performers at the end of Saturday evening’s performance well-represented the audience’s astonishment and delight and deep enjoyment at the stellar efforts of singers and players alike. Musica Sacra concert series director Robert Oliver brought to bear his enormous skill and experience in this repertoire with vision and intensity, and in doing so inspired a performance of this legendary work which will surely be talked about in Wellington for years to come.