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”.