Monteverdi: The Other Vespers

Monteverdi: The Other Vespers
Choir and Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, Robert Howarth
Kings Place, 15 January 2016

Music by Monteverdi, Grandi, and Cavalli

The 2016 Kings Place ‘Baroque Unwrapped’ season will include some 45 concerts in a variety of formats. Opening the season in grand style were the Choir and Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment in a spectacular programme of music from the very start of the Baroque era by Monteverdi, Grandi and Cavalli. “This is not the 1610 Vespers” warned conductor Robert Howarth at the start. Although retaining the structure of a Vespers service, the music was drawn from Monteverdi’s 1640/41 Selva morale e spirituale and the posthumous Messa e salmi of 1650.

The Vespers opened with the traditional Deus and Response, in the jubilant fanfare-like version written by Alessandro Grandi. Later in the programme we heard his exquisite O quam tu pulchra es – described by Robert Howarth in the late-evening OAE Night Shift as a “piece of pure filth”. In one of the more bizarre bits of the Bible a Lebanon beauty is described as having “hair like flocks of goats” and “teeth like roars of oars”. It does sound better in Latin. Soprano Zoe Brooksure gave a beautiful performance, accompanied by David Miller’s excellent continuo realisations on theorbo.

As is so often the case with biblical texts, it is sometime better to just ignore the words, either because they make no sense, or because there depict primitive concepts. An example of the latter was Nisi Dominus, where the psalmist rejoices in men who sire sons under the premise that “he will not be bested as his sons barter at the city gate”. I’m not convinced that having lots of sons is the ideal way to avoid be hassled by barterers at city gates – or that “Sons are a heritage of the Lord”, but there we go.

Monteverdi makes all this very much easier by providing extraordinarily detailed musical interpretations of the text, sometimes changing mood for each word in a phrase. This aspect was particularly well observed by Robert Howarth and the eight OAE singers, with very clear phrasing, clean cadences at the end of lines and superb control of volume. This is music of wonderful vigour and momentum, but needs very careful control of the pulse and the relationship between the various (what we now call) time signatures. Robert Howarth is one of the few conductors that understand how this should work; by generally keeping a steady tactus and taking the triple time sections at a slower pace than most conductors do.  The eight singers all had solo spots during the evening, but particularly credit, not least on work-rate grounds, must go to the two sopranos Miriam Allan and Zoe Brookshaw and the tenors Jeremy Budd and John Bowen.

The Ave maris stella Vesper hymn was in a version by Francesco Cavalli, a young protégé of Monteverdi and, later, his deputy at St Mark’s. The apparently simple verse structure has three soloists for the verses, but concludes with a trio that combines each solo line. Two instrumental pieces by Cavalli were also included to represent the antiphons, the Canozona a 3 being particularly effective, notably for the final section build on a hypnotic four note descending bass line. Alison Bury and Julia Kuhn were the two violinists, and had leading roles in many of the pieces. The main continuo players were Andrew Skidmore playing bass violin, David Miller, theorbo, and Pawel Siwezak and Robert Howarth on organs, the use of two organs, rather than organ and harpsichord working particularly well.

The final Magnificat (the first in Selva morale e spiritual) was a glorious conclusion, with its complex interplay of voices switching rapidly between small scale and chorus sections. The central section features an expanded setting of the verse Fecit potentiam which, after an intoned opening line all one chord, leads into elaborate runs from the two sopranos, balanced by sections for two bass voices. An excellent concert, and an impressive start to the Baroque festival.

The Night Shift

OAE Night Shift.jpgThe OAE then moved to the adjoining Hall Two of Kings Place for one of their popular Night Shift events, aimed at a younger audience and with a delightfully relaxed atmosphere, with many people sitting on the floor, a bar, and friendly introductions to the music played – a shorter version of the main concert. This included the “pure filth” of Zoe Brookshaw’s O quam tu pulchra es, which was very well received. Despite encouragement to wander about and go and get drinks, it is always the case with these events that the capacity audience remain transfixed by the music. The OAE performers responded well to the questions and comments from the friendly compère, which included some nice quips about the organ, who had the biggest theorbo, and the revalation that David Miller just “loves re-entrant tuning”. It also gave me the chance to hear the Magnificat again while lying down on the floor with my eyes closed – I can recommend it.

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