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Claudio Monteverdi
12 Nov 2015

Monteverdi by The Sixteen at Wigmore Hall

This was a concert where immense satisfaction was derived equally from the quality of musicianship displayed and the coherence and resourcefulness of the programme presented. In 1610, Claudio Monteverdi published his Vespro della Beata Vergine for soloists, chorus, and orchestra.

Monteverdi by The Sixteen at Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Claudio Monteverdi


It is a work notable for its assimilation of old and new styles, and liturgical and secular elements, though the precise origins and intention of the large-scale, 90-minute composition are unknown, and have been the subject of lively musicological debate. First printed in Venice in 1610, the work may have been an ‘audition piece’ for a musical position in that city at a time when Monteverdi was still in the employ of the Duke of Gonzaga in Mantua. Whatever the context, by 1613 Monteverdi was working at St. Mark’s in Venice; he was not to compose another entire Vespers, but he did produce settings of some of the individual biblical texts which form the service. And, it was a selection of these works, arranged in almost-symmetrical formation across the two halves of the concert, which The Sixteen performed, under the direction of Harry Christophers.

Framing the programme were two settings of Psalm 100, Dixit Dominus (‘The Lord said’), the first drawn from the composer’s virtuosic collection of sacred works, Selva morale e spirtuale of 1641. Listening to this lively 8-voice work — which was accompanied by violins, cello, theorbo, harp and organ — I was struck by the arresting vivacity of the individual musical lines. In contrast to the perfectly blended tone of ensembles such as The Tallis Scholars, Harry Christophers encouraged the singers to bring individual character and colour to their vocal parts, while never sacrificing unity and coherence. The result was ‘operatic’ in effect; voices dramatically moved to the fore and then retreated, asserting their dynamic role in the narrative, then withdrawing to allow other voices to hold sway. Solos alternated animatedly with ensemble textures, and the two violins added their own vibrant interaction. Such was the spirited nature of the rhythmic movement of the inner voices that at times the work seemed more festive and dance-like than devotional. Christophers was a flexible guide, creating changes of pace within and between individual episodes, complementing and enhancing the variations of timbre. Arriving at the fifth stanza’s soprano duet, ‘De torrente in via bibet:/ Propterea exaltabit caput.’ (He shall drink of the brook in the way: therefore shall he lift up his head.), we seemed to enter the world of the madrigal, so lilting and sweet were the sighing phrases. The closing ‘Gloria Patri’ moved from homophonic grandeur to impressive floridity.

The ‘mirror’ work at the close of the concert was Monteverdi’s 1650 Dixit Dominus, also for eight voices. Large parts of this setting are identical to that from Selva Morale e Spirituale. While the 1650 work is less complex than the earlier publication, and so may in fact have been written first, with the lines ‘Judicabit in nationibus’ (He shall judge among the heathen), the voices engaged in gloriously complex rhythmic debates and the subsequent ‘De torrente’ was enriched by exciting harp flourishes.

The second Dixit Dominus was published in Monteverdi’s posthumous collection Messa et salmi, which also contained the remaining items in the programme, including the two settings of Confitebor tibi Domine (‘Psalm 111, I will praise you Lord’) that formed the next ‘inner layer’. The first is for solo soprano. The theorbo’s contribution to the quiet instrumental opening was particularly expressive, and the dancing ritornello for violins which is interspersed between the voice’s ornate melodies might have been drawn from Orfeo. Elin Manahan Thomas’s soprano was agile and light, and she confidently shaped the performance, manipulating the tempo and interacting with the instrumental parts in imitative sequences. A tenor is added for the second Confitebor, and Mark Dobell and Grace Davidson, accompanied by the violins and continuo, made much of the madrigalian chromaticism and word-painting: ‘Exquisita in omnes voluntates eius.’ ([the Lord’s works are studied by all who delight in them) ‘Misericors et miserator Dominus’ (merciful and compassionate is the Lord) was passed expressively between the voices, as if to emphasis the duality of His qualities, underscored by dissonance. Later, the unification of the voices for ‘Fidelia omnia mandata eius’ (All his promises are ordained) was beautifully enacted. The harpsichord’s sweeping flourishes celebrated the glory of His divine justice and the cello continuo line contributed eloquently to the whole.

Monteverdi’s 1650 Laetatus Sum (Psalm 122, ‘I was glad’) for six voices was mirrored in the second half by two works:Laudate Dominum omnes gentes (Psalm 117) — here performed as a bass duet — and Lauda Jerusalem a 3. The ostinato of Laetatus Sum rolled forwards compelling — and the change to a triple meter and back further energised the work — as the duetting voices, first sopranos, then tenors and finally bass, skipped and twirled vivaciously above. The high tenor lines were bright and strong; the darker basses vigorous and nimble. The paired sopranos blended wonderfully with the two violins, the sonorities seeming to imitate each other, almost deceiving the ear. The homophonous ‘Gloria Patri’ was a powerful statement of ‘oneness’ after such diversity. After the melismatic liveliness of the Laudate Dominum, the monotone ‘Amen’ presented a striking contrast. The three male voices of Lauda Jerusalem (BTT) again relished every opportunity to indulge in expressive textual heightening. The melismas, dissonances and quivers of the lines ‘Emittet verbum suum, et liquefaciet ea:/Flabit spirit eius, et fluent aquae’ (He shall send out his word, and shall melt them: his wind shall blow, and the waters shall run) were gloriously dramatic, and the low, narrowly spaced vocal parts in the final lines of the ‘Gloria Patri’ were thrillingly dark-hued.

Two settings of Monteverdi’s Nisi Dominus (Psalm 127, ‘Unless the Lord builds a house’), the first for three voices, the second for six, surrounded the central ‘core’ — Cavalli’s Magnificat, also published in 1650. The first Nisi was splendidly theatrical, characterised by seemingly spontaneous invention, as the singers — alto, tenor then bass — sang their verses in turn, while the flexibility and responsiveness of the singers in the six-part version was notable. After such imaginative ingenuity, the series of solos, duets and trios of Cavalli’s Magnificat seemed, to this ear at least, somewhat prosaic, though there was no lessening of the vibrancy of the delivery of the contrapuntal interplay — and the contrast of timbre offered by the commencement, in the middle of the work, of a chaconne bass line introduced, as so many of the Monteverdi works had done, a secular tone within the sacred.

Everything about this concert was consummately prepared and executed; even the complex choreography required as the requisite musicians and singers entered, traversed and quitted the platform throughout the evolving programme. This was a performance that was undoubtedly much more than the sum of its parts.

Claire Seymour

Programme and performers:

Claudio Monteverdi: Dixit Dominus (Primo) (from Selva morale e spirituale), Confitebor tibi Domine (Primo),Laetatus sum a6, Nisi Dominus a3; Francesco Cavalli: Magnificat; Claudio Monteverdi: Nisi Dominus a6, Laudate Dominum omnes gentes (for solo bass), Lauda Jerusalem a3, Confitebor tibi Domine (Secondo).

The Sixteen: director: Harry Christophers; soprano: Grace Davidson, Elin Manahan Thomas; tenor: Jeremy Bud, Mark Dobell, Steven Harrold, George Pooley; bass: Jimmy Holliday, Stuart Young; violin 1: Simon Jones, violin 2: Andrea Jones, cello: Joseph Crouch, harp: Frances Kelly, theorbo: David Miller, organ & harpsichord: Alastair Ross. Wigmore Hall, London, Tuesday 3rd November 2015.

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