Vespers of the Blessed Virgin (1610)
Emanuela Galli & Lenneke Ruiten (sopranos); Stephanie Guidera & Raffaele Pe (altos); Peter Davoren, Benjamin Thapa & Andrew Tortise (tenors); Tom Appleton, Alex Ashworth, Sam Evans & Jonathan Sells (basses)
London Oratory Junior Choir
Schola Cantorum of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School
English Baroque Soloists
His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts
Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 10 September, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
There was the Last Night still to come, but the Proms could not have bowed out in finer style than with this majestic performance of the “Vespro della Beata Vergine”. Monteverdi’s fusion of ceremonial, drama and intensely expressive spirituality fits John Eliot Gardiner’s extrovertly patrician conducting like a glove. And, while this may not be a view strictly palatable to early-music fundamentalists, he does present this long, renaissance/early baroque sequence of motets, psalms and hymns as a work of great cohesiveness, a progression via anticipatory hints of Marian virtues and attributes in the psalms and some acutely subjective apostrophising of Mary in the motets and hymns to the fullest realisation of her, in her own words, in the concluding ‘Magnificat’ – it really isn’t over until the Mother of God sings.
The Royal Albert Hall may not be up to much in terms of incense and glowing mosaics, but it does have wide-open spaces, which Gardiner explored to amazing effect in ’Duo Seraphim’ and, especially, in the ‘Gloria’ of the “Magnificat”, the two tenors’ ecstatic melismas echoing round the Gallery and the London Oratory and Cardinal Vaughan choirs singing with otherworldly spaciousness in the ‘Sancta Maria’. With choirs and soloists at strategic points around the hall, the antiphonal singing had a monolithic grandeur that was intensely thrilling and which emphasised the sense of ritual that is inseparable from the music. These huge theatrical gestures were complemented by singing and playing of great flexibility and freedom – the soloists were often singing from memory – with a range and style of emotion that would have given Wagner or Mahler pause for thought.
The soloists, all from the Monteverdi Choir, were at their expressive best – a broad and commanding ’Deus in adiutorium’ from Alex Ashworth, a stunning ‘Duo Seraphim’ from Andrew Tortise and Peter Davoren, the latter delivering a slyly erotic ’Nigra sum’ that strained the seams of the sacred; Tortise and Davorem again in an intensely devotional ‘Audi coelum‘, with Davorem’s echoes from the Gallery like music from another planet.
The Monteverdi Choir, hardwired to this music, sang from the text up, with incisively responsive word-painting and vivid vocal colours. This was as far as it’s possible to get from our cathedral choral sound.
For all Gardiner’s command of the music’s complexities, of the way in which the Gregorian chant element flowers into polyphonic splendour and of the early-music sound, its emotional and spiritual impact was completely modern, the capacity audience held spellbound by a performance sometimes so intense it physically hurt. It is 400 years since it was composed, and Monteverdi’s “Vespers” can still make time stand still.