L’Arpeggiata, Christina Pluhar
Tue 14 Dec 2021, Barbican Hall
Monteverdi’s monumental 1610 Vespro della Beata Vergine is now considered mainstream repertoire, but it was unusual to hear it performed alongside the inevitable sequence of Messiah’s in the run-up to Christmas. It was equally good that, amongst the current complicated Anglo-French relations, London could welcome the French group L’Arpeggiata and their founder/director Christina Pluhar. Current Covid and travel issues meant that they were rather more Anglo than usual, with several UK musicians drafted in at short notice to replace those unable to travel. The concert took place live on 14 December in the Barbican Hall, but was also available to stream live, which is how I saw the performance.
The programme note, with its excellent introduction by Alexandra Coghlan (which can be accessed here) set the historical and musical scene, including the continuing doubts about its composition and intention, raising such questions as “When was it composed? For what purpose and occasion? Was it ever performed and, if so, where and in what form? Finally – and most significantly – is it, in fact, a unified work at all?”. Taking the form of the traditional Catholic Vespers service, with its five Psalms, a Hymn and a concluding Magnificat, it could have been intended as a ceremonial contribution to the 1608 marriage of the Duke of Mantua’s son to Margherita of Savoy, or perhaps as “a musical portfolio to advertise to the visiting Pope Paul V (the work’s dedicatee) in hopes of a Vatican job”.
Musically, its historic importance is that it combines the old prima pratica style and traditional plainchant cantus firmus with the emerging seconda pratica reflecting the style of the earliest operas. There is no record of it being performed in full during Monteverdi’s lifetime, or, indeed, if it was ever intended to be so performed, so attempts to recreate an ‘original’ performance are doomed. Despite its apparent grandeur, Monteverdi suggested that it was suitable for “chapels and ducal chambers”. This performance was non-liturgical, in that it omitted the plainchant antiphons before the Psalms and Magnificat, but was of a scale suitable for the space of the Barbican – at least as revealed in the stream. With one voice to a part for the chorus, they might have sounded a little underpowered in the hall, but would have projected well into the most un-churchlike acoustics.
The performance was impressive, with special mention due to the English tenor Nicholas Mulroy who, as well as announcing the entire piece with the dramatic opening solo Deus in adiutorium took the lead in several other sections, notably Nigra sum, his use of ornaments being particularly impressive. Amongst the instrumentalists, Jorge Jimenez & Jesus Merino Ruiz, violin, Doron Sherwin & Gawain Glenton, cornetto, Laura Agut & Emily White, trombone, and Josep Maria Marti Duran, theorbo, impressed. But the elaborations of the organ and theorbo continuo were rather overdone and prominent at times, particularly during the smaller scale sections, although this might have been as a result of microphone placing in the live stream and might not have been so audible in the hall. The occasional vibrato of some of the upper voices was distracting.
Given the acoustics, Christina Pluhar direction was comfortably paced without breaking any speed limits – it lasted about 90 minutes, compared to the 75 minutes of her 2011 recording, the first to get the Vespers onto a single CD. The large scale Ave maris stella and Magnificat that conclude the Vespers were particularly well done. The recording and video quality was good, although the stage microphones inevitably picked up more of the stage noise than would have been noticeable in the hall. Adding lighting effects seems to be the thing nowadays, and those at the Barbican sere subtle and well-judged, the vertical strips of light giving the appearance of a church organ, a Gothic church, or a forest, depending on the colour shifts and ones perception.