Thursday, May 19, 2022
Westminster Abbey, London
Guest Reviewer, Curtis Rogers
Monteverdi’s Vespers have become indelibly associated with Venice (the theme of this year’s London Festival of Baroque Music) on account of the composer’s long association with the Republic, as maestro di cappella at the Basilica of St Mark’s from 1613 to his death in 1643 (he was buried, however, in the city’s Frari church). But he composed his choral and vocal settings for the liturgy of the Catholic Church’s evening service whilst he still served in the equivalent position at the court of the Gonzagas in Mantua, perhaps as a musical job application as he sought a better post elsewhere. There are no documented performances of the work, or indeed of any part, at Venice, but it is unthinkable that it was not presented at the Basilica at some point during his tenure.
Westminster Abbey provided a similarly monumental space in which to give the cycle of settings (minus the smaller version of the Magnificat, as usual). Under James O’Donnell’s direction, the Abbey’s Choir and St James’s Baroque offered a fairly restrained interpretation (from what I heard, having missed the first four sections owing to a late train). Rather than southern European, Catholic fervour, there was Anglican sobriety, as though proceeding cautiously in the wide open acoustic of the Abbey. Instead of vivid, dramatic contrasts which could easily have become lost or blurred, the music tended to flow more sedately and contemplatively. For instance, the opening section (and its repetition) of the ‘Nisi Dominus’, with its oscillating passages of weaving counterpoint, was a gentle, lilting amble; and some of the dialogue of the ‘Laetatus sum’ was like a convivial conversation among the vocal lines, though the wafting upwards of its polyphony on that Psalm’s concluding “Gloria patri” brought a tantalising sense of mystery. The syncopated opening of the ‘Lauda Jerusalem’ gave that setting more vigour, with soaring trebles over bustling lower voices, but in general the music came over as though in waves rather than dynamically generated from one bar or phrase to the next.
On the whole, textures were lean, tempos moderately swift, and volume kept within reasonable levels. Departures from that made expressive points, such as the slower, ruminative Magnificat, and its yet steadier concluding section, bringing the whole cycle to an end with focused, calm dignity rather than ecstatic force (despite something of a striking crescendo). Or, on the other hand, the Choir’s warm, rapt acclamation of the Virgin Mary in the concluding section of the motet ‘Audi caelum’ after the dialogue between two soloists was all-the-more moving in view of the emotional coolness elsewhere.
Those solo numbers (or sacred concertos) were efficient, if not especially dramatic – certainly with no sense of the theatrical about them, even though they represented as novel a stylistic trend in the history of music as the recently invented genre of opera. The two trebles for ‘Pulchra es’ made it a playful, amiable (if not ravishing) duet over gently throbbing theorbo accompaniment, whilst the tenors for ‘Duo seraphim’ and ‘Audi caelum’ were a touch grainy and routine in their melismas, though occasionally opening out into something more lyrical. The ingenious verbal echoes of the latter section came from behind the choir screen of the Abbey to create a suitably distant effect, and a few other passages were delivered in the same manner. It was a pity that the building’s large space was not more fully exploited: for ‘Duo seraphim’ the three soloists were lined up across the front of the ensemble, not positioned further apart in the nave to create an expansive sonic space as implied by the words. As a group, for the many iterations of “Sancta Maria” in the eponymous Sonata, the trebles were commendably unanimous in rhythm and crisp in tone, sounding as though they were one voice.
St James’s Baroque provided discreet accompaniment much of the time, its contributions often tender or genial, not least the almost jocular opening episode to the aforementioned Sonata. Some of the sequences in that piece did not seem quite in synch with the trebles’ intercessions, however. Relative to the number of singers, the instrumentalists were fewer and there were times when a more assertive, blazing sonority would have been welcome, not least in the Magnificat’s conclusion, to provide a more manifest climax to the whole. In that respect, with its musical zeal and variety, and overall sense of occasion, John Eliot Gardiner’s filmed account of the Vespers from the Basilica of St Mark’s in 1989 remains unrivalled. The performance here offered a more rarefied and calm experience, consistently sustained across its various sections and styles, and compelling in its particular manner.