Monteverdi gets keen, sharp-edged and exciting treatment

Claudio MONTEVERDI – Vespers of the Blessed Virgin of 1610
New Zealand Festival 2016

Concerto Italiano
Rinaldo Alessandrini (director)

Michael Fowler Centre,

Saturday, 27th February 2016

There was certainly a festive spirit around and about the Michael Fowler Centre leading up to the performance on Saturday evening of Claudio Monteverdi’s resplendent Vespers of 1610, to be given by the highly-acclaimed visiting baroque ensemble Concerto Italiano with their director Rinaldo Alessandrini.

The performance fulfilled all expectations, managing even to transcend the venue’s drab, determinedly secular vistas and ambiences. My last encounter with this music “live” having been in the atmospheric precincts of St.Mary of the Angels Church here in Wellington, it took a while for me to supersede my resonant expectations and recontextualise the sounds made by Concerto Italiano – here, a far tighter, more focused sound-picture, emphasizing clarity and transparency ahead of any layered ecclesiastical context of listening.

Of course the focus and brilliance of the singing and playing drew me into the group’s very different sound-world before too long – and even though I would still have preferred a church setting in which to experience this work, I was ultimately carried away by the beauty, wonderment, excitement and depth of feeling of it all – things which go to make up the full force of the festival experience!

Having said all of this, it’s ironic that this work by Monteverdi, regarded as one of the cornerstones of the baroque vocal-and-instrumental repertoire, and on a par with similar iconic masterpieces such as Bach’s B Minor Mass and Handel’s Messiah, was written by its composer more as a kind of showcase of his composing talents than a public expression of personal faith. In fact, it appears to have been performed only once in the composer’s lifetime, and then, not for over three hundred years afterwards.

At the age of forty-three, Monteverdi wanted a change from being in the service of the Duke of Mantua, and so arranged for the publication of his Vespers in 1610 to advertise his wares as a composer. It didn’t land him the job he REALLY wanted (Master of Music at the Papal Chapel in Rome), but it helped get him something nearly as good – Master of Music at the prestigious St. Mark’s Church in Venice. The rest, as they say in the classics, is history.

So the 1610 Vespers represent Monteverdi as a composer of a number of different styles of sacred music which he had produced during his time in Mantua, and here put in the form of a single liturgical service. The scholarly arguments over what ought to go into the Vespers from Monteverdi’s publication for whatever  structural or liturgical reasons have raged about this music for years, ever since the work was taken up once again in the 1930s.  The upshot of all this is that there seems to be no one “correct” version of the work, and that every performance is therefore, as expressed by the writer of an article in the festival program about the music’s history, “a unique experience”.

Though comparisons with the previous performance I had heard in Wellington six years ago (referred to above) are largely academic for all of the above reasons, each one on its own terms proclaimed the music a masterpiece with stunning and often breath-taking conviction. From the earlier performance I continue to cherish things such as the performances of the two soprano soloists, who remain hors concurs in my experience – good though the female singers of Concerto Italiano were, neither put across the music’s beauty, colour, sensuality and even erotic impulse, to the same extent as did Pepe Becker and Jayne Tankersley in St.Mary of the Angels, especially in the vocal concerto Pulchra es, as well as in the Psalmus 147 Lauda Jerusalem, with interactions and dovetailing highlighting what the remainder of the singers were doing most delightfully.

My other enduring memory of the earlier performance relates to its physical setting, allowing a wonderful and engaging immediacy in overall effect for we in the audience/congregation – for me, greater than was to be had in the MFC – and a more atmospheric sound-picture in St.Mary’s giving both vocal and instrumental tones splendid resonance, as well as allowing for especially stunning antiphonal effects (though Concerto Italiano’s off-stage efforts were exquisite and magical in their own way).

So now, having satisfied my urge to relive some of the more memorable aspects of the work’s previous Wellington performance, I can now at last turn to the real point of this review and consider Concerto Italiano’s stimulating and satisfying rendition of the music. As I’ve said, it took me some time to get on the performance’s wavelength, but as each section took its turn to unfold, I found myself more and more drawn into the music’s world and that of the group’s strongly-focused realizations. Throughout the particularly arresting section featuring the motet Nigra sum, words taken from the biblical Song of Solomon and pertaining to the Virgin Mary, I was spellbound – here sung by a tenor and accompanied by a pair of theorbos (instruments similar to lutes but with lengthy fretboards and strings), the music achieved an intimate, heartfelt quality, ranging from passionate declamation to raptly-voiced wonderment on the part of the singer.

Though not quite matching the élan and physicality of the earlier performance I’d heard of Pulchra es, the singers gave their exuberant flourishes sufficient energy to make a stirring impression, before throwing themselves into the complexities of the coloratura of Psalm 121, Laetatus sum, the music’s rollicking pyrotechnics concluding with a Gloria. The men’s voices then purposefully tackled another motet, Duo Seraphim, the singers relishing the piece’s fantastically rapid note-repetition, before combining with the rest of the ensemble to deliver the Psalm 126 with grandeur at first, and then energy, as the music switched engagingly to three-four time – a great first-half closer!

We enjoyed the onstage/offstage echoes of the tenors’ exchanges during the motet Audi coelum, the music having a luscious, exotic “feel” about it, a mood which the entry of additional voices and a quicker tempo set upon its head in the tumult which followed, the harmonies of the music taking on a lovely ongoing, “rolling” quality. And I so enjoyed the deftness of the music’s interweaving during the following Lauda, Jerusalem, Dominum, the syncopated figurations generating tremendous “schwung” – well, its Venetian equivalent, anyhow – finishing with a hymn-like grandeur of utterance, again, with a rolling, surging “Amen” that was a thrill to experience.

What gorgeously rich harmonies were floated, hymn-like, for our pleasure at the beginning of Ave maris stella! And how tenderly both strings and brass by turns contributed gently-voiced, dance-like reprises to the verses! This was, however, but a prelude to the splendors of the Magnificat which concluded the work, beginning with grand declamations and passages of florid vocal decoration intensifying the radiance of the opening words, and concluding with a Gloria which built upwards from an amazing “statement-and echo” sequence between two tenors into a mighty peroration from both singers and instrumentalists, effectively giving the lie to my opening impression of a certain smallness of scale from the brass. The trombones, especially, contributed a truly awe-inspiring sonority to the panoply of sounds ringing through the auditorium.

At the work’s end Alessandrini and his singers and players were treated to a standing ovation, as well they might have been – a truly festive occasion!

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