By Geoffrey Simon
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) wanted to leave his ducal post in Mantua in the first decade of the 17th century because he felt overworked and under-appreciated. One wonders what he would have thought about the thunderous applause and many shouts of “bravo” that greeted John Eliot Gardiner, his Monteverdi Choir and his English Baroque Soloists at the conclusion of their performance April 19 for Carolina Performing Arts of the composer’s Vespro della Beata Vergine at the University of North Carolina’s Memorial Hall.
The ovation that greeted these artists at the first stop of their U.S. tour was well deserved. Gardiner knows this music to its core: 2014 was the 50th anniversary of the Monteverdi Choir, founded by the conductor to sing this very work, familiarly known as the Vespers of 1610. His performers included 34 singers and an orchestra of 24, the whole being frequently subdivided into smaller ensembles, their perambulations to various locations in the hall taking place while the rest of the musicians continued to perform.
This is neither late Renaissance nor early Baroque music, for it is both. Monteverdi himself was well aware of being in the midst of musical stylistic transition. He referred to the Renaissance tradition as prima pratica and to the emerging style, of which his own opera Orfeo was a leading example, as seconda pratica. The Vespers is, in this regard, rather schizophrenic: Its music moves between the two styles with ease, sometimes combining them in a single movement. Generally, the psalms are more “old style,” the motets more Orfeo style. Gardiner’s interpretation emphasizes the dramatic elements possible in each, both in his attention to their musical details and in his creative placement of his musicians to create antiphonal and spatial effects.
The Vespers alternates psalm settings and motets before concluding with three Marian texts: Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis; Ave Maris stella; and the Magnificat. The Monteverdi Choir was grouped into two choruses separated by some six feet of unoccupied risers. The arrangement accented the antiphonal properties of movements such as Nisi Dominus, composed in the Venetian polychoral style of the Gabrielis but with the metrical freedom of the madrigal, a vocal form which Monteverdi had already long since mastered.
In front of the choirs was the orchestra, flanked by a portative organ on each side. The recorders, harpsichord, and harp were arrayed on Gardiner’s left along with the violinists; the basso continuo group (cellos, bass, and four chittarroni/bass lutes) in the center; the brass section (three cornetti, three sackbuts) on the right. There was also a dulcian, the Renaissance predecessor of the modern bassoon.
The concert began with a solo tenor intoning the versicle Deus in adjutorium meum intende and the chorus, without scores, answering with the unison response, Domine, ad adjuvandum me festina. (“O God, turn to me in my adversity; make haste to help me, O Lord.”) From this Gregorian chant beginning, accompanied by organ and bass strings only, Gardiner quickly and emphatically brought in the entire ensemble in the work’s first setting of the Gloria Patri, the text of which will appear six more times in the Vespers.
One mark of Monteverdi’s genius is that, while this repeated text serves as a strong unifying element within the work, each musical treatment of it is different from all the others. In the second movement, Dixit Dominus, the opening Gloria Patri lines were sung off-stage by a single tenor voice accompanied by one of the chittarroni; the closing lines were sung by the full vocal ensemble, now using scores. If some musicologists would question Gardiner’s use of diminuendi in this movement as being outside the performance practices of the period, none could argue that the effect was not musically satisfying.
Perhaps Monteverdi had heard some of the then-avant-garde music of Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa. If so, its influence could be heard in the sudden, unprepared half-step key changes in the third-movement motet, Nigra sum, and in the daring harmonies surrounding the word “terribilis” in the fifth-movement motet, Pulchra es. In the seventh-movement motet, Duo Seraphim, Gardiner sent three tenors and three lutes to Memorial Hall’s balcony railing, spaced far right, center, and far left, producing ethereal antiphonal effects. All the soloists were excellent; indeed, it was a surprise to hear a bass actually behind the beat in the sixth movement Laetatus sum. The solo singers delivered Monteverdi’s wide-ranging vocal ornaments, including the daunting trillo (multiple quick staccato repetitions of a single pitch), with ease.
Nothing interfered with the flow of the music from one section to another. At the start of the ninth-movement motet, Audi coelum, Gardiner let the duetting voices begin even as he drank from his water bottle and wiped the sweat from his brow. This is, indeed, fundamental to Gardiner’s approach. The music is paramount. This was nowhere more clear than in the twelfth-movement hymn, Ave Maria stella: Gardiner imbued its seven stanzas with varying colors of Monteverdi’s palette (double chorus, solo women’s trio, solo men’s trio, brass sextet).
The concluding Magnificat showed the glory to which Monteverdi would return the music of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice when he became its choirmaster in 1613. A polychoral setting of a cantus firmus complete with offstage echo passages and the final florid Amen brought the audience to its feet. Even after 50 years, Gardiner brings life and freshness to this monument of early 17th-century sacred music.
This performance of the Vespers was the first of the current U.S. tour, running through May 1; two more Vespers evenings remain, in Costa Mesa and New York, with other concerts devoted to L’Orfeo in Washington, D.C., Costa Mesa, San Francisco, Princeton, and New York. For details, click here.
Geoffrey Simon, DMA, Fellow of the College of Church Musicians, maintains an active career as an organist, harpsichordist, and conductor, and is a contributing critic to Classical Voice North Carolina. In addition to appearances in twenty U.S. states, he has performed in several European capitals, as well as in J. S. Bach’s church in Leipzig, Germany.