Friday, 15 January 2016

Dancing in the aisles - Monteverdi: The Other Vespers at Kings Place

S. Marco, Venice, Italy. S. Marco, Venice, Italy. Venice - St. Mark's, interior looking diagonally. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection
St. Mark's Basilica, Venice - interior looking diagonally.
Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection
Monteverdi: The Other Vespers, Monteverdi, Grandi, Cavalli; The Choir of the Enlightenment, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Robert Howarth; Kings Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 15 2016
Star rating: 5.0

Vivid and enlivening performances of sacred music from Monteverdi's 1641 and 1650 publications

Having given us Minimalism Unwrapped during 2015, last night (14 January 2016) Kings Place launched the latest of its year-long themed seasons with the opening concert of 2016's Baroque Unwrapped. Robert Howarth directed the Choir of the Enlightenment and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in Monteverdi: The Other Vespers, a vespers sequence taken from Monteverdi's 1641 publication Selva morale e spirituale and the 1650 posthumous publication Messa e Salmi, along with music by Monteverdi's younger contemporaries Alessandro Grandi and Francesco Cavalli. We started with Grandi's Deus and Response and then followed with five vespers psalms by Monteverdi along with a Salve Reginai and concluding with Magnificat No 1 from Selva morale e spirituale. These were interspersed with motets and instrumental pieces by Grandi and Cavalli.

The music was performed by a relatively small and flexible group of performers, with eight singers (Miriam Allan, Zoe Brookshaw, Eleanor Minney, Nancy Cole, Jeremy Budd, John Bowen, Jonathan Brown, William Gaunt) who moved flexibly from solo moments to choral ensembles, and an instrumental ensemble of two violins, viola, bass violin, two sackbuts, dulcian, two theorbos and organ, led by violinist Alison Bury.

Whereas the grand vespers of 1610 were written very much as a job application (Monteverdi wanted to leave Mantua and had his eyes set on a bigger post elsewhere like Rome or Venice), Selva morale e spirituale is very much a summation of Monteverdi's work at St Mark's Basilica in Venice and this combined with the 1650 posthumous collection give us a real idea of the music Monteverdi's performers gave during services at St Mark's Basilica in Venice. And it was the vespers service which typically attracted the most elaborate and most modern of Monteverdi's music.

We opened with the Grandi Deus and Response followed by Monteverdi's eight-part Dixit Dominus No. 2 and five-part Laudaate pueri No. 1 from Selva morale e spirituale. The sound quality was a strong, bright, voice-led sound with a lovely sense of detail in the singing and playing. This was vividly danceable music, and Robert Howarth and his performers brought this out in a delightful manner. The Dixit Dominus made a lot of use of the whole eight-part choir whereas the contrasting Laudate pueri setting was more a sequence of different flexible vocal groupings with one SAB choir and one TT choir

Francesco Cavalli's Sonata a 6, played by two violins, viola, two sackbuts and dulcian, started out serious and fugal, but a lovely sense of dance rhythm wasn't far away.

Monteverdi's 1650 Laetatus sum also used two unequal choirs (SS/TTBB), and started with a lovely sequence of duets for the various voices (sopranos, then tenors then basses). In style it reminded me of Monteverdi's well known Beatus vir with its motor rhythm accompaniment over which the singers sang lovely roulades, and the bass duet was almost a trio with the perky dulcian part. Nisi Dominus from 1650 was six part (SSA/TTB) as rather fast and furious with lots of busy detail finely brought out by the performers, separated my magical pause points when the music seemed suspended.

Between the two Monteverdi psalm's we had a solo, Grandi's O quam tu pulchra es sung by soprano solo with continuo accompaniment. It was a piece that combined dance-inspired rhythms with some really luscious moments.

After the interval we had Monteverdi's final psalm, the 1650 Lauda Jerusalem for six-part choir (SSATTB) which combined the full, vibrant voices with the instrumental texture to create a fascinating whole. The voices formed part of the whole texture, rather than the instruments simply accompanying.

Cavalli's Canzona a 3 was performed by two violins, bass violin and continuo. It started in delightful fugal manner before expanding. Cavalli's hymn Ave maris stella from 1656 was just three singers (ATB) and organ. It was a lovely lyric and rather relaxed piece. Finally we had two more Monteverdi pieces. Salve Regina, which was performed by two tenors and continuo, was rather lovely yet not uncomplex. The large scale Magnificat No. 1 from Selva morale e spirituale used all the forces with a double choir (SATB/SATB) to create a lovely texture full of busy detail. This was far less grand and showy than the Magnificat from 1610, but it was wonderfully invigorating.

The whole programme brought out the lovely sense of dance rhythms underlying the music. The performers under Robert Howarth (who directed from a second organ) gave the sort of involving yet finely detailed performance which made you want to get up and dance in the aisles. A wonderful start to the Baroque season.

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