La Nuova Musica perform Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers at Wigmore Hall.
The ambiguities surrounding the composition of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespro della Beata Vergine invite performers to put their own gloss on this collection of movements, and David Bates, directing La Nuova Musica at Wigmore Hall, opted to emphasise the more operatic leanings of Monteverdi’s seconda pratica in a performance that was opulent, dramatic, and, at times, too big for the stage and the building. This was apparent from the opening ‘Deus in adjutorium’, in which a somewhat over-enthusiastic soprano sang the kind of decorative top line normally allocated to cornetts.
This sumptuous interpretation, though, was not devoid of nuance, and Bates’ control of tempo and dynamic served well to point up the baroque splendour of the work, contrasting it with more ascetic renderings. The text of ‘Dixit Dominus’, for example, was brought out to the full in the rapid switches of speed and volume, and the pull-ups on the phrases of ‘Laetatus sum’ were beautifully mannered.
The substantial instrumental ensemble included the usual cornetts, sackbuts and strings, augmented by two theorbos, harp, organ and harpsichord, all of which produced some rich and varied textures: ‘Nigra sum’ benefitted from a wonderfully warm accompaniment from therobos and string bass, and the decorations under ‘tempus putationis’ were delectable; the pizzicato bass in the quicker sections of ‘Pulchra es’ was inspired, as was the outrageously showy organ riff at the close of ‘Laetatus sum’. The instrumentalists throughout delivered some top-notch playing, demonstrated to the full in their accompaniments to vocal lines in ‘Ave maris stella’ and the Magnificat (the whispering harp accompaniment to one of the soprano lines in the former, for example, or the sprightly strings for ‘fecit potentes’ in the latter).
“…a performance that was opulent, dramatic…”
This operatic approach, though, translated less well into the vocal parts. The latter movements – ‘Ave maris stella’ and the Magnificat – worked generally well with the octet of singers; their blend was good, and the dynamic and timbre well controlled (the darkness of the two basses in ‘et misericodia’ was thrilling). In choosing the tenors for the duet work in ‘Duo seraphim’ and ‘Audi coelum’, Bates was clearly aiming for a more florid sound than usual, but, for my taste, the sound was just a little too 19th century. Alessandro Fisher and Ben Johnson have lovely voices, but both of them have too much spread to them to get the best value out of these movements. ‘Duo seraphim’, for example, needs the vocal tone to have the intensity and accuracy of a snooker cannon shot if those suspensions are to ping, and this just didn’t happen – so even though the movement was enlivened by some power chord theorbo strumming during the ‘Sanctus’ sections, the net result was disappointing: plenty of power and emotion, but a lack of focus. Indeed, the power was more than evident when the pair joined the rest of the singers for the psalm movements, where, sadly, it not only unbalanced the sound from the lower voices, but brought it hurtling forward into another era: the unison tenor lines in ‘Laudate pueri’ and the opening phrase of ‘Lauda Jerusalem’ made one consider whether Monteverdi might have drawn some of his singers from an early incarnation of Rugby Mantova.
These two psalms also suffered a little from the theatrical approach they were given: inherent in the Vespers is the contrast between the more staid, liturgical psalms, pegged to a fixed, central cantus firmus, and the free composed, more glitzy ‘sacred concertos’. Although the cantus firmus lines are musically uninteresting, they form a still point around which the other material swirls, and, sadly, due to the imbalance in these two psalms, this effect was lost.