Monteverdi’s Vespers at Barbican Hall – L’Arpeggiata/Christina Pluhar

Vespro della Beata Vergine

Christina Pluhar

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 14 December, 2021
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Perhaps surprisingly, to those who know Christina Pluhar’s interpretations of Baroque and Renaissance music as well as traditional Mediterranean and Latin American folk repertoire, her performance of Monteverdi’s great choral compilation with L’Arpeggiata was generally contemplative and subdued. Certainly the deadening acoustic of the Barbican Hall did no favours for this liturgical music which really needs the ambience of a church or chapel. But fortunately the small forces utilised here (ten singers and twelve instrumentalists – constituting one to a part in the sections with the largest ensembles) implied more the sort of private devotional setting where the music was probably first heard in Mantua, rather than the grander environment of St Mark’s in Venice, where Monteverdi assumed a post shortly after composing the Vespers. 

Accordingly there was not much dramatic exploitation of space: the echoes for ‘Audi, coelum’ were enunciated by Nicholas Mulroy from the back of the stage, just as they were for the final “Gloria Patri” of the whole cycle which concludes the Magnificat, though the latter were given so strenuously as to preclude the effect of their coming from a distance. The initial pair of singers in ‘Duo Seraphim’ projected their exquisite suspensions from the nearer stage from which all the singers performed and standing next to the chamber organ, on the other side of which was the third singer for that movement. But otherwise the performers remained close together.

The stately and sober pace of the opening ‘Deus in adiutorium’ set the character for much of what followed, particularly with the choral Psalm settings, where dynamics were kept within a moderate range. More alacrity was introduced for moments of excitement or joy such as in the ‘Laudate pueri’, and the ‘Lauda, Jerusalem’ (initiated by the nimble, syncopated melody enunciated by the cantor); or the confrontation with the Lord’s enemies imagined in the ‘Dixit Dominus’. Rather than crude word-painting, however, these were passages of salient contrast brought in by singers, whilst Pluhar maintained a steady demeanour in her conducting.  Although the ‘Nisi Dominus’ was very brisk, its swirling contrapuntal lines were not elucidated as individually distinct strands, with the overall result that it sounded like a hypnotically oscillating, but harmonically static sequence of slower moving chords. 

In general, as an ensemble, the singers sang with a notable degree of fervent sonority which created a sense of ardent devotion, rather than overt drama, underpinned by the well-blended group of instrumentalists of L’Arpeggiata – only occasionally did the trombones stand out with any raucous chordal passages, or the violins come to the fore, in spinning out ebullient lines for the largely instrumental fantasia that is the ‘Sonata sopra Sancta Maria’ for instance. 

The Motets alternating with the Psalms were more intimate, sung with quiet attention, even chastely so in the case of the ‘Nigra sum’ and ‘Pulchra es’, despite their texts coming from the Song of Solomon with its erotic imagery. The elegant combining of the two soprano voices in the latter brought it within the world of Couperin’s Tenebrae settings. The plangent intensity of Mulroy’s singing made the most striking effect in the passages for solo voice, or in cutting through when singing with the others.

But on the whole this was very much a collegiate effort by all concerned rather than the opportunity for any solo grandstanding, which came to a relatively more sonorous conclusion with the dignified unfolding of the various sections of the grand concluding Magnificat, all presided over by Pluhar’s calm and discreet authority.

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