Classical and Opera Reviews

Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 @ St John’s Smith Square, London

14 May 2017


Vox Luminis

This year marks the 450th anniversary of the birth of Claudio Monteverdi, and concert halls are full of performances of his works – particularly the 1610 Vespro della Beate Vergine. On Sunday night (possibly on the anniversary of the day of his birth) the work was given an outstanding performance by two European ensembles – the Belgian choir Vox Luminis and Freiburg Baroque Consort – who are touring the piece in Germany and the UK.

With no conductor – other than some subtle indications of tempo from Lionel Meunier, Vox Luminis’ director (and one of its two basses) – the forces on stage provided a shining example of how musical communication and synergy can work at the highest level.

The most obvious feature of the performance was the intelligent use of texture; Monteverdi wasn’t specific about the ripieno orchestration of the pieces, so it is left to individual editions and performances as to when to deploy instrumental forces. Sunday’s account provided a glittering contrast of orchestral and choral textures. Vox Luminis is that rare beast, a choir made up of individual voices of character (most of the singers performed in solos, duets or trios) that also produces an excellent blend when singing together. The instrumental accompaniment to the pieces was also varied: warm sackbuts and cornetts in ‘Audi coelum’; delicious organ-continuo embellishments in ‘Ave Maris Stella’, a magnificently full sound for the Amen of ‘Laetatus sum’, and a dramatic halt of all accompaniment for the two sopranos in the Magnificat ‘Esurientes’.

The ensembles also used the space well, changing the position of singers and instruments to point up the polychoral items – the four sopranos stood one at each corner of the instrumental ensemble for ‘Sonata sopra Sancta Maria’ was particularly effective, as was the use of different echo effects for ‘Audi Coelum’ and the ‘Gloria’ of the Magnificat – indeed, throughout the Magnificat, spatial arrangement changed for different movements.

The Vespers is a complicated mixture of Monteverdi’s two styles: his cantus-firmus-based prima pratica for the psalm settings and his more melody-driven and operatic seconda pratica for the interleaved instrumental and vocal concerti. The performers were adept at highlighting the differences, articulating the constantly driving polyphony in, for example, ‘Nisi Dominus’ or ‘Lauda Jerusalem’, the two polyphonic choirs separated by small groups of voices and instruments for the cantus firmus. The duple./triple time changes were effortlessly managed, so the dancing, often syncopated, nature of these movements (particularly ‘Lauda’) was always apparent.

The concerti were something else again. Monteverdi loved his suspensions, and the performers gave them full measure, leaning into them to highlight the dramatic and sensuous nature of these pieces. The three tenors in ‘Duo Serpahim’ were magnificent, trillo-ing, circling and impacting with the inexorable force of planets colliding. All of the soloists were excellent, but special mention must go to Raffaele Giordani, who took the bulk of the tenor work. Although his top register is effortless, his voice is full of warm, fuzzy baritone harmonics that serve perfectly to augment the almost-sexual quality that the concerti hint at, and his ‘Nigra sum’ was the sort of performance that, in other contexts, might well be followed by a cigarette.

For such a first-class performance, it is difficult to separate out specific highlights, but other special moments included the soprano ‘Esurientes’ duet, the bass duet ‘Quia fecit’ and the entirety of ‘Sonata sopra Sancta Maria’ in which, without any formal direction, the duetted pairs of instruments – violins, cornetts and sackbuts – performed in absolute synchronisation.

The performance was recorded for BBC Radio 3 and will be on iPlayer for a while – this is definitely a ‘must listen’.


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Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 @ St John’s Smith Square, London