Saturday 1 May 2010

Monteverdi Vespers from the OAE

On Tuesday we went to the Queen Elizabeth Hall for the Orchestra of the Age of Englightenment's performance of Monteverdi's Vespers of the Blessed Virgin from 1610. OAE could probably attracted a pretty decent audience in the Festival Hall so it was heartening to find that they were performing in the smaller QEH.

Despite the apparent links with Venice, Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers were written whilst he was still at Mantua and would have been created with the smaller Mantuan court chapel in mind rather than St. Mark's in Venice. Conductor Robert Howarth's version of the Vespers was relatively austere, without going the full one singer per part route. He used a chamber choir of 20 (the choir of the Enlightenment) which used 4 women (sopranos and mezzos mixed) on top, then 4 men (altos and high tenors mixed) on the next line down. The soloists were drawn from the choir. The orchestra was also relatively small, 15 players.

The edition used included the plainchant antiphons, opened with an organ intonation and followed the Magnificatwith a violin sonata by Giovanni Fontana which has a thematic reference to the motet Pulchra es. Howarth eschewed any extra instrumental doubling so that the orchestra played mainly in the opening and closing numbers, the psalms being accompanied by the continuo group only.

The result was to make the vespers a more intimate, liturgical work rather than a grand statement - though both points of view are valid and can be supported by the music. After all John Eliot Gardiner's performance at this year's proms will surely be on a far bigger scale.

The soprano soloists, Grace Davidson and Kirsty Hopkins were creditable and involving without bringing that extra something to the music which the Emma Kirkby's of this world can do. The highlight of the evening was the beautiful, thrilling performance of Duo Seraphin from tenors Simon Wall, Nicholas Mulroy and Sam Boden.

The choir were on good form. They had one or two muddy moments early on; I wasn't sure that Howarth's directing from the keyboard was always as clear as it could be. But they rose to the challenge of the great moments.

This wasn't the most thrilling performance of the Vespers, but it was certainly a musical and a thoughtful one.

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