Monteverdi’s Selva Morale e Sprituale of 1641 is a compilation of forty of the church works that he composed over the previous four decades. With the series translating as The Moral and Spiritual Forest, the pieces show considerable thematic and musical variation. They include reflections on vanity, a mass, a Gloria and two secular pieces re-written with religious words, while musically they range from solos with simple accompaniment to larger ensemble pieces with multiple choirs, strings and brass.
Harry Christophers and The Sixteen have now recorded all forty works, and the selection performed in this concert revealed the full range of emotions that they cover, as well as illustrating how Monteverdi included more than one setting of the same text. The strength of The Sixteen has always rested on both the quality of its individual voices and its ability to blend these effectively, and working here with material that it knew and understood so well, it produced superb singing and playing
While the Wigmore Hall is far smaller than St Mark’s in Venice, its own acoustical qualities conjure up a sense of purity and spirituality that make it feel almost as appropriate a forum for these works as the Basilica itself. The Sixteen was reduced to eight singers (seldom all required at the same time) who joined with the forces of two violins, cello, theorbo, organ and harpsichord. The Gloria a 7, which doubles up on all parts except the alto, started with a triumphant tenor solo before the sound was thickened by the introduction of multiple parts. Although the piece was designed for voice pairs to call across the chancel to each other, the clarity in the singers’ sound meant that the sense of exchange was no less effective now that they were all crammed onto one small stage. Each set of phrases possesses its own unique palette of sound, and the way in which the choir varied these, each line seeming to pile another dimension on top of the last, was particularly impressive.
The exquisite voices of sopranos Grace Davidson and Julia Doyle were given an opportunity to shine in the duet Salve Regina (Secondo) in which their ‘echoing’ of each others’ phrases in the opening revealed immense purity of tone. The phrasing employed in the line ‘Ad te suspiramus’, in which their sighs are interspersed with rests was particularly skilfully managed. The Laudate pueri (Primo) that followed ended with a pleasing theorbo solo from David Miller, while in the Deus tuorum militum (Primo) tenor soloist Mark Dobell revealed both smoothness and the necessary level of gravitas in his voice to suit the subject matter of a martyr dying in battle.
The interval was framed on either side by different versions of Psalm 110, Dixit Dominus. The Secondo (performed first) proved a highly multi-layered affair, with its alterations in texture and rhythm, while the Primo was hardly less so in its intriguing depths. The Confitebor Terzo alla francese a 5 of Psalm 111, an important text to the Venetians, saw some deft handling of the various rhythms that pull and tug away, while Davidson’s voice in particular demonstrated a pleasing coherency of sound as she covered a considerable range so exquisitely.
As the concert drew towards its conclusion through the joyous Beatus vir (Primo) a 6 (the music originally composed as a secular song), the heartfelt and muscular Magnificat (Primo) and an encore in the form of the composer’s Laudate Dominum Primo it simply became impossible not to feel overwhelmed by the splendour of Monteverdi’s works, displayed here in such intimate perfection.
This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and will be available on iPlayer for a week.
All three volumes of The Sixteen’s Selva Morale e Sprituale on the CORO label are available from its website. Volume III, to be released on 2 April 2013, is currently available for pre-order.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.