Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Monteverdi Vespers review – The Sixteen at The Barbican

15 May 2024

The award-winning ensemble give a live performance of Monteverdi’s complex work in celebration of a double birthday.

Barbican Hall

Barbican Hall (Photo: Dion Barrett)

As we know, Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers is a somewhat chequered piece. Reintroduced to the concert repertoire only in the 1950s, it has seen a transition from being a quirky concert work for large forces, to being mainly, these days, the province of professional early music groups, many of whom (including The Sixteen, ten years ago) have made recordings of it. The uncertainties around its original purpose, which movements make up the ‘work’, and what Monteverdi intended in the way of instrumental forces, allow for considerable individuality in interpretation, and the chance of hearing the group perform it live was an enticing prospect.

The Sixteen (who celebrate their founding 45 years ago this year) under the meticulous direction of Harry Christophers (who himself turned 70 recently) as always gave a note-perfect performance of the piece, in which careful attention was paid to internal choral balance – particularly the antiphonal work in the psalms – and the singers approached the brisk tempi that Christophers often set (suscitans/erigens in ‘Laudate pueri’, or the entirety of ‘Nisi Dominus’, for example) with efficiency and a superb control of dynamic and blend, the rhythmic character of movements such as ‘Lauda Jerusalem’ given crisp and precise accuracy. Much use was also made of the division of vocal forces (beyond Monteverdi’s scoring) to add light and shade to the choral sound – the occasional passage sung by a semi-chorus, for example. Even when the entire choir was singing, dynamic contrasts were to the fore: the choral ‘coda’ to ‘Audi coelum’ contrasted a relatively full sound for Omnes with some subsequent polyphony that was light on its feet, followed by quiet serenity for the homophonic ‘Benedicta es’.

The soloists were taken from the choir, and their pairings were adroitly matched: Charlotte Mobbs and Katy Hill’s voices brought a sweet clarity to the aching suspensions in ‘Pulchra es’ and the vocal tones of Mark Dobell, Jeremy Budd and Ben Davies, although individually slightly different, delivered a perfect blend for ‘Duo Seraphim’.

“As always, under Harry Christophers’ meticulous direction, the performance was note-perfect…”

The instrumental complement for this account was generous: the strings, cornetts and sackbuts were augmented with recorders and a dulcian, and the continuo section included not only a theorbo but a harp. All of this was put to intelligent use, and we were treated to a fascinating diversity of textures: ‘Ave maris stella’, for example rang a series of changes in instrumentation not only for the passages for instruments alone, but also as accompaniment to the solo and choral verses. These variations in timbre were also noticeable in the psalms, which would often start either a cappella or with minimum continuo, the layers of instruments gradually being added from minimal strings up to full-throated sackbuts and cornetts.

All of the above sound like the ingredients for a flawless and inspiring evening’s music; sadly, though, the performance felt shorn of that sense of sprezzatura that one wants from the piece. Maybe it was down to the venue – the Barbican Hall is hardly a heavenly space: its severe modernity makes for an unyielding atmosphere, and its peculiar ‘acoustic corridors’ mean that sometimes there are uncertainties of balance. In this latter respect the choir, seated behind the instruments, sometimes felt a touch restrained, and some of the exciting ‘oomph’ moments were underwhelming (doubtless, those listening to the broadcast on Radio 3 will have had the benefit of the sound engineers’ magic). Maybe it was also the presentation; concert dress rarely gets discussed in reviews, but here it warrants a mention: The Sixteen opted for full-dress concert outfits, bringing to the whole performance an overformal, ‘buttoned-up’ (literally, for those wearing white tie and tails) dimension; concert performances by tenors in boiled shirts may work for Verdi, but, alas, not for Monteverdi.

While the piece was full of period style, one felt that the musical gestures had been researched, notated and rigorously rehearsed, rather than them coming, ad lib from the performers’ immersion in the idiom (one wants to feel, in music of this kind, that a lavish embellishment of a line, or a sudden percussive continuo passage has been improvised by a group steeped in the performance practice of the period simply ‘having fun with it’). An occasional ray of Italian sunshine pierced the windows of academia (the multi-hued movements of the Magnificat felt as though colour had been applied with a little more abandon), but, by and large, this performance suggested the quiet scholarship of the Bridge of Sighs in Oxford, rather than the emotionally charged associations of the Venetian original.

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