Wednesday 12 November 2014

The Sixteen - Monteverdi Vespers

The Sixteen - © MolinaVisuals
The Sixteen - © MolinaVisuals
Monteverdi Vespers of 1610; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 10 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Serious and intense account of Monteverdi's sacred masterpiece

The Sixteen and conductor Harry Christophers do an annual UK tour, The Choral Pilgrimage, which takes a programme of unaccompanied choral music all round the country. This year they have decided to fit in a shorter tour between the 2014 and 2015 pilgrimages and are doing eight dates with both the choir and orchestra performing Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610. We caught their performance at Cadogan Hall on Monday 10 November 2014 with soloists Grace Davidson, Charlotte Mobbs, Mark Dobell, Jeremy Budd, Ben Davies and Eamonn Dougan.

A number of question marks hang over Monteverdi's most iconic work of sacred music. Published in 1610, the work was intended as a calling card to help Monteverdi get a new job. It worked, in 1613 he became music director at St Mark's Venice though in fact he had been rather aiming at a top job in Rome. The Vespers is forever associated with St Mark's, though Monteverdi almost certainly never thought of that church when writing it. Added to which, the published volume not only includes the music for vespers but a mass as well, and the vespers music includes pieces (the sacred concertos) which don't really fit and are assumed to be replacements for antiphons. The music works superbly as a coherent whole, but we have no record that Monteverdi ever thought of it being performed together or that he did so himself. And on top of this, there is a question over what key some pieces are in. As given in traditional modern performances, the Magnificat is at such a high pitch that it can make for a spine tingling, edge of the seat performance taking both vocal soloists and cornetts to the top of their range. Commentators argue for a downward transposition, which sensible but far less fun.

Thankfully Harry Christophers opted for a very full, traditional version of the work. All the movements were performed and we had the longer, more complicated version of the Magnificat in the higher key. He also used a relatively large group of performers, with 20 singers and 24 instrumentalists. The continuo group consisted of organ, chitarrone, harp and dulcian. The soloists were members of the choir, but sensibly we had a named set them rather than  different soloists for each movement as can happen. These being sopranos Grace Davidson and Charlotte Mobbs, tenors Mark Dobell and Jeremy Budd and basses Ben Davies and Eamonn Dougan.

But the biggest virtue of the performance was the everyone took the work seriously. This was a concert performance of a major piece of sacred music and any element of bravura display, and there was a great deal, was subsumed into the greater sense of reverence and spirituality. It worked because the standard of performance was so high, and the whole became highly involving. This was perhaps one of the most intense and concentrated performances of the vespers that I have heard.

Christophers speeds were not particularly remarkable but within this he enabled his performers to achieve a lovely feeling of relaxation and space. The sacred concertos in particular had a timeless feel, even though the performers were giving us cascades of notes. Mark Dobell's performance in Nigra sum reflected the sense of intimacy which many of the singers brought to the sacred concertos and the trio Duo seraphim sung by Jeremy Budd, Mark Dobell and Ben Davies had a mesmerising sense of time standing still. In the Magnificat Ben Davies and Eamonn Dougan gave an impressive and beautifully sung account of the high duet, Quia fecit mihi magna, and sopranos Grace Davidson and Charlotte Mobbs showed beautifully fluidity in Suscepit Israel. Not every moment was a star solo and not every single note (and there are a lot) was perfect, but the performance benefitted from the lovely interaction and sense of collegiality.

The choir was equally on strong form, with highly vivid performances. There was much crisp textual detail and an intensely present vocal sound which brought clarity to the choruses despite having 20 singers. This is music that is often sung by just a vocal ensemble and it was a testament to The Sixteen's skill that they gave us both technical skill and a feeling of intimacy and communication. The instrumentalists contributed equally to the performance, with some fluid continuo work and of course some stunning cornett playing.

As is usually with The Sixteen's concert tours, you can take the concert home with you and they have recently recorded Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610

There is a sense that Monteverdi's vespers has become a little common place of late. The work no longer has that sense of extreme challenge to performers and a generation of singers and performers has grown up with the work being part of the canon. Also, we have lost the feeling of the spiritual, that this is a major piece of sacred music and not just a show. Christophers and his team of singers and performers brought something of these qualities to a performance which didn't say 'look at me, aren't I clever' but 'listen to me, wonder and think'. I rather regretted not being able to catch the performance in one of the cathedrals, and gather that the one in Worcester Cathedral worked particularly well with the space. But in Cadogan Hall, you got a greater sense of detail and of intimacy and there was sufficient aural warmth to bring a gentle bloom to the sound.

There are a few performances of the tour left with dates in Rochester, Guildford and Peterborough in January 2015.
Elsewhere on this blog:

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