Monteverdi Vespers (Highgate Choral Society)

Monteverdi
Vespers of 1610

Charlotte Ellet & Yvette Bonner (sopranos)
Daniel Auchinloss & Richard Edgar-Wilson (tenors)
Franck Lopez (baritone)

Highgate Choral Society
New London Children’s Choir

New London Orchestra
Ronald Corp


Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 8 July, 2006
Venue: All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London NW3

The Highgate Choral Society was founded in 1878, and recently celebrated 125 years of singing. Well-respected, it has a reputation for performing choral music ranging from baroque to modern. Indeed, it has given first performances of many works – including three compositions by Ronald Corp, its Musical Director over the last twenty years.

In his introductory talk, Corp warmly advocated Monteverdi as a strikingly original composer during an era of transition. Here, music of the older style (plainsong and polyphony) is juxtaposed with the ‘modern’ (nascent Baroque and monodic). Similarly, the ecclesiastical style (plainchant) sits together with the secular style (melodic arias).

The Vespers was first performed on 15th August 1610. Monteverdi sought the post of Maestro di Capella at the Basilica of St Marks, whcih was awarded him four days later.

The work is a compendium. A first section presents five psalms separated by four motets (or concerti). The motets are the most modern in style. The second section comprises two Marian works – the ‘Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis’ and the hymn ‘Ave maris stella’. A closing ‘Magnificat’ follows.

The ‘movements’ are rooted in plainsong and traditional choral chanting. The more modern devices include solo ensembles, basso-continuo patterns and orchestral ritornelli. We often lurch, urgently and intensely, from the old to the new, from the modal to the tonal. This gives music that is exciting, impassioned and unexpected.

Strange, arresting instrumental sounds added to the Monteverdi’s warm yet sepulchral sonority – sounds from the cornetti, the sackbuts and an enormous theorbo whose fingerboard rose above the orchestra like an uncoiled sea-serpent with a tiny head.

The Highgate Choral Society’s 200 members put forth a fulsome noise. Their singing is pleasing to the ear; their discipline has a commendably precise sound. Words are clearly articulated, whether sung softly or loudly. A sterling feature of their singing is their steadiness; this is a choir with its feet on the ground. The plainsong was firm and open-eyed. The pace of most movements was calmly moderate, enabling polyphonic strands to establish and develop steadily, without mishap. The more emotional passages emerged through greater volume and force, making the choir’s rock-like steadiness yet more evident. There was no straining after an impassioned headiness that ran the risk of running out of control.

The soloists sang with clear authority whenever the melodic line was straightforward. Some of the ornamentation was punishingly elaborate. Sopranos Charlotte Ellet and Yvette Bonner coped with this more assuredly than did tenors Daniel Auchinloss and Richard Edgar-Wilson.

During the ‘Magnificat’, the New London Children’s Choir sang in delightfully pure and steady unison.

The New London Orchestra played robustly and vigorously, its contribution to the music’s energy and individual character essential. Strange, piquant sounds struck colour and intensity to the choral sections, the motets especially.

All Hallows Church has a clean, clear acoustic but is rather dry and lacks reverberation. Thus, Monteverdi’s writing often sounded cut short so that this performance, commendable though it was, did not bloom or resonate to its fullest.

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