Vespro della beata Vergine
Julia Doyle & Cecilia Osmond (sopranos)
Andrew Carwood (tenor)
Westminster Cathedral Choir
New London Consort
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 15 October, 2007
Venue: Westminster Cathedral, London
This next fortnight sees the brunt of the “Luigi Nono: Fragments of Venice” festival – several concerts featuring the music of the composer’s distant though undeniably relevant Italian forebears.
This performance of Monteverdi’s “Vespers” (1610) was one such event – predicting by some 350 years the role of antiphony and spatial diffusion in Nono’s work as a whole, and his late music in particular.
In other ways, too, “Vespers” is a work in advance of its time. Although almost certainly intended for – and first performed at – a liturgical occasion, the music was then published as a sequence that seems to invite concert presentation (whether complete or in part); thereby anticipating the similarly autonomous design of Bach’s “Mass in B minor” by over a century.
Since the present work was revived in the 1950s, various attempts have been made to place its components in a fitting liturgical context, but there is much to be said for eschewing such conjecture and instead realising the work as a 95- minute continuum of psalm-settings and motets: a ‘Mahler Three’ poised at or near the cusp of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Thus the approach taken by Martin Baker in this performance.
Sonically, the result was a mixed success. Outwardly similar as the internal expanses of St Mark’s (Venice) and Westminster Cathedral may seem, the latter’s resonance lacks the directional emphasis and acoustic definition that no doubt encouraged Monteverdi to throw caution to the winds and so make the fullest use of his performing space. While side pulpit, galleries and rear of the nave were successfully utilised for those pieces that require smaller forces, the larger choral items were heard on the main platform just below the alter – which, along with the modest complement of voices and instruments, meant that both the clarity and impact of the music were compromised.
A return to the more substantial forces that earlier editors advocated would now be considered heretical, but would it not have been possible to deploy a degree of electronic enhancement? In a series that seeks to underline connections with Nono, this might also have served more than a purely practical function.
That said, the performance was as committed as one would expect from the combined Westminster Cathedral Choir and New London Consort. Baker’s tempos were quick but never overly or inflexibly so, enabling the elegance and even suavity of Monteverdi’s vocal lines to come through naturally – and (acoustical considerations notwithstanding) with the often-dense polyphonic interplay between voices, as well as that between voices and instruments, lucidly rendered. The choir was all-male – with a bracing contrast between trebles and altos, and an extended range of options between tenors and basses.
Numerous soloists were drawn from the chorus and acquitted themselves expertly. Andrew Carwood had the lion’s share of the solo writing per se and his warm, mellifluous tenor was ideally suited to the elegance of the motets – sparingly accompanied by two theorbos. Julia Doyle and Cecilia Osmond combined sensuously in the motet ‘Pulchra es’, and it was a pity they had little to do elsewhere. The cornetts of the New London Consort were not flawless in articulation – but its keening recorders and robust sackbuts, and a lithe string section (bass viols replacing cellos), was more than compensation. Music by some of Monteverdi’s immediate predecessors acted as the unobtrusive interludes between those pieces requiring spatial realignment, and was discreetly rendered by organist Matthew Martin.
Monteverdi’s “Vespers” has sometimes been described as the first real concert piece. Astonishingly, it is still closer to us in time than to the Notre-Dame school, and its compendious perspective – brought to a climax in the intricate ‘Magnificat’ – acknowledges the past and anticipates the future. A festival centred on the diverse facets of Nono’s Venetian heritage would have been incomplete without it.