Monteverdi Vespers of 1610
Orchestra & Choir of the Age of Enlightenment, Robert Howarth (Director)
City of London Festival. St Paul’s Cathedral. 2 July 2015
There are many ways of performing Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers, and conductor Robert Howarth’s interpretation with the Choir and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment must count as one of the finest; not just in the technical decisions (which are complex) but in the sheer magnificence of the performance itself. St Paul’s Cathedral is not an easy space to sing into, but the 23 singers of the OAE showed exactly how to do it. It was interesting comparing them to the 106 singers of LSO chorus in last week’s performance of the Haydn Creation, the OAE soloists and chorus producing a far clearer and more focussed sound.
The technical choices that need to be made before performance are legendary, but Howarth sensibly chose a relatively hard-line approach, avoiding instrumental doubling, a sensible group of continuo players (with many pieces accompanied by one or two theorbos alone), two voices to each chorus part, and good spacing of the 27 separate parts of the Vespers. The instruments were pairs of violins and violas, a bass violin and a sparingly used contrabasso di gamba, with triple cornets and trombones and a dulcian, with two theorbos and chamber organ.
The key pieces were presented in what has become the traditional order (and as published), but is by no means definitely the way that Monteverdi intended it to be performed. Putting the Vespers into the context of the celebration of the Feast of the Annunciation in St Mark’s, Venice, explained the Antiphon and Chapter chants that were added before the five Psalms, the Ave maris stella and the Magnificat. The latter had an instrumental Antiphon substitute with Fontana’s complex Sonata Seconda, in a magnificent Stylus phantasticus style (and starting with the Magniciate intonation), played to perfection by violinist Alison Bury. A short series of Versicle/Responses bought the evening to a peaceful close. One issue that Robert Howarth coped with well was structuring the evening, segueing the chanted Antiphons with the following Psalms to create separate groups of three pieces.
Amongst several outstanding vocal moments were Nicholas Mulroy’s singing of Nigra Sum, his gentle repetitions of the title text being a very telling demonstration that it is possible to sing quietly and still fill a vast acoustic. He caught the emotional depth of the text to perfection in a beautifully fluid rendering of Monteverdi’s musical line. Sopranos Anna Denis and Julia Doyle excelled in Pulchra es, as did Jeremy Budd and Sam Boden in Audi Coelum and Alex Ashworth and Ben Davies in the key chant intonations. The vocal echo passages were sung with one singer well behind the choir between the Cathedral’s choir stalls. The instrumental echoes were only slightly treated as such, the second cornet and violin player remaining next to the first, but playing slightly quieter. Other possible antiphonal effects were under-played, the choir standing in two lines of normal spacing, with most voices divided on either side.
Robert Howarth controlled the pace of the whole work excellently, perhaps taking a slightly more relaxed pace than he would in a smaller acoustic. His choruses were rhythmically vigorous, but avoided the temptation of many conductors to overdo their power, letting the voices fill the space without being forced. His was an expressive interpretation, making use of subtle volume changes (for example in the reflective repetitions of O Maria, Maria in Exultent caeli), and a flexible approach to speed. His OAE interpretation of the Vespers is available on CD as a live recording in a much smaller acoustic.
A big let down was that the City of London Festival provided minimal information about the evening in their festival booklet, and only the names of performers on a handout. To promote a concert like this without producing a proper programme is a very poor show.