Monteverdi Vespers – Gabrieli Consort & Players/Paul McCreesh

Vespers of the Blessed Virgin (1610)

Susan Hemington Jones & Ruth Massey (sopranos), Charles Daniels, Joseph Cornwell & Jeremy Budd (tenors)
Gabrieli Consort & Players
Paul McCreesh

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 11 November, 2010
Venue: Christ Church, Spitalfields, London

Paul McCreesh. Photograph: Sheila RockOne of the pinnacles of early-Baroque, Italian Catholic music in one of the grandest, late-Baroque English masterpieces of assertively post-Reformation architecture – actually the interior of Hawksmoor’s massive Christ Church in Spitalfields has been so thoroughly restored it looks almost brand new. The exterior, though, looks magnificent – vigorous and sturdy, an uncompromising temple to a once-confident faith.

The church’s austere interior suited Paul McCreesh’s restrained approach to Monteverdi’s “Vespers” well, with modest forces (12 singers and 12 players) compared to those, for example, assembled by John Eliot Gardiner for his grand performance at this year’s Proms. However, there’s no doubt that the impact of the McCreesh performance-practice was just as overwhelming.In an attempt to contain the high romance of the “Vespers” as a “proto-oratorio” (McCreesh’s description), a progress towards the climactic realisation of Mary the Mother of God in the concluding ‘Magnificat’, he makes a strong case in his programme-note for the many changes in his re-ordering of, in particular, the motets.

If anything, the sense of accumulative devotion was even more intense, especially in a performance as rapt, detailed and varied as this, which, after the conventional progress of psalms, still made the ‘Magnificat’ the focus, its effect slowly and transcendentally released by the amazing sequence of the ‘Sonata sopra Sancta Maria’, then ‘Duo Seraphim’, both clinched by the incredible ‘Audi coelum’. McCreesh may, with good reason, want to re-think “this inevitable sense of inevitable climax”, but in the process has come up with a solution no less sublime and spiritually satisfying.

Perhaps the absence of plainsong antiphons drew attention away from the fact that the five psalm settings are themselves fabulous elaborations of ancient chant; and possibly McCreesh’s discretion played down the power of the psalm doxologies (‘Glory be to the Father‘) as assertively Christian annexations of Hebrew texts, but they flowed beautifully into and out of each other.

Throughout, I was aware of how vital the two stunning altos (David Allsopp and Mark Chambers) were to the overall vocal sound, both of them producing a full, even, non-English sound. They made a huge impact in the theatrical and very madrigalian ‘Laudate, pueri’, and every time, either together or singly, they featured, they never disappointed. The tenors were just as effective, Charles Daniels launching the evening with a thrilling ‘Deus in adjutorium’; conjuring muezzin-like antiphony with Joseph Cornwell in the ‘Gloria’ to the ‘Magnificat’; and then, along with Jeremy Budd, delivering a compelling ‘Duo Seraphim’. The two sopranos, Ruth Massey and Susan Hemington Jones, had an expressive and subtle contrast of soft and slightly astringent that served their subliminally erotic ‘Pulchra es’ superbly well.

Without being overly expansive, McCreesh let his sequence and Monteverdi’s music unfold, natural and unforced, and, indeed, sat down in the motets and gave the singers their head. The Gabrieli Players were sensational, there is no other word, in the ‘Sonata’, and the musicians produced a broad range of colour in the ‘Magnificat’.

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