It seems extraordinary that Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers of the Blessed Virgin was barely mentioned through the course of musical history until what seems to have been its first public performance in the 1930’s and first recordings made in the 1950’s. It was not surprising then, that it was a near capacity audience which highly anticipated being immersed in this iconic work, especially when the accomplished Ensemble Gombert and Ludovico’s Band guaranteed Vespers would be a highlight in this year’s Recital Centre program. Appropriately, this evening’s performance was scheduled for the early evening, taking us in time to the historic atmosphere of gentle reverence, prayer and beauty in this fine acoustic.
It is interesting that the title page of the first printing indicates “for use in princely rooms and chapels” and Monteverdi employs more “modern” secular elements with simple harmonies, strongly marked cadences, differences with the musical treatment for verses of the Psalms and boldly contrasted instrumental, solo and choral groups. Modern concert performances can vary widely, with the conductor choosing to omit the responsory antiphons used for the traditional sacred feast day in the Roman Catholic Church, and determine the instrumental accompaniment.
Just the vision of Ensemble Gombert and the period instruments of Ludovico’s Band was delightful, although no doubt staging was an initial challenge for musical director John O’Donnell and artistic director Marshall McGuire, given the dizzying variety of structures in a score requiring seven soloists, a chorus being divided in up to ten parts, accompanied by varied instrumental combinations or solos, or omitted altogether.
The rich, exciting and expressive voice of tenor soloist Christopher Watson commanded our attention and admiration with the opening plainchant preceding Deus in adjutorium. This opening choral section is sometimes given a more forthright, bold and energetic rendition, with exhilarating dotted rhythms and drive. Conducting from a central chamber organ John O’Donnell demonstrated his commitment to a more authentic and honest historic style, with a uniform pure and balanced sound and a constant tone and level of dynamics.
Dixit Dominus gave us the joy of six-part choral writing, contrasting dotted rhythms and fugal lines which perhaps were a little moderated in energy and tempo, but resonant and balanced. Sopranos showed purity and finesse although male voices bonded with more certainty and strength in the contrapuntal lines overshadowing the female voices at times. Nigra sum comes as an early pinnacle in the structure of Vespers. Its text from the Song of Songs associated with the Virgin Mary is more secular, more typical of the intimate style of a madrigal, with intimacy and expressiveness central to the tenor’s melodic flow. With solo theorbo accompaniment (Samantha Cohen), this solo was a gem, sung with breadth of expression and dynamics, admirable poise and diction. The audience was held motionless and silent at its conclusion
Pulchra es amica mea, a duet for two sopranos, accompanied by two harpists Marshall McGuire and Hannah Lane, showed youthful, dancing lilting qualities as the melodies intertwined. Again the audience was spell-bound by the beauty, purity and grace of this intimate madrigal-like movement.
Psalm Laetatus sum for six-part choir, unfolded from tenor voices accompanied by pairs of theorbos and harps. There were many contrasts as the female voices added more intricate ornamentation, and the full choir exuded a power and strength which contrasted with reverence and prayerfulness. The tenors again shone with their clarity and mastery of the imitative lines of Duo Seraphim. Monteverdi’s innovative ideas were most evident in his choice of beginning the section with two tenors at first accompanied by two theorbos, and with the later entry of the third tenor came excellent blend and balance, tonally expressive and heartwarming, with the complex contrapuntal rhythms fusing together for a very beautiful suspensions in the final cadence.
The choir gained more energy and body in the ten-part Nisi Dominus, and with a reverential and slightly restrained tempo, the splendid antiphonal responses and detail in the vocal parts was a joy to hear. The period instruments provided a supportive rhythmic ostinato with stunning sonority. There was full unity and authentic Baroque expression shown in a clear mood change and a contrasting mellow vocal tone with the solemnity of the final text. Most intimate and unconventional is the motet Aulum Coelum, where the second tenor echoes the free fantasia like scale passages more usual in instrumental styles. With only a sparse continuo accompaniment, staging one voice with one theorbo to stage left seemed to physically isolate the pair, but the imitation was skilfully sung.
The fifth psalm Lauda Jerusalem Dominum for full ensemble and seven-part choir came with exciting contrasts of blended choral work and the voices rose above the instruments with more power and rejoicing. The lights brightened further with Sancta Maria ora pro nobis, as strings, sackbuts and cornets accompanied six female voices in a detailed tapestry of melodic expression.
These final sections leading into the hymn Ave Maris Stella, and the closing two minutes of the Magnificat with its rousing, dramatic conclusion heightened our respect for the collaboration of these two ensembles, as we were transported back in time to another place with music and spiritual cohesiveness. The final extended AMEN was performed with strength and majesty in a stirring conclusion, a tribute to Monteverdi’s belief that “The end of all good music is to affect the soul”.
Julie McErlain reviewed the Ensemble Gombert & Ludovico’s Band performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers, part of the 2019 Southbank Series, in Elisabeth Murdoch Hall at the Melbourne Recital Centre on 23 September, 2019.