The Director of Gloriana Chamber Choir and Players, Andrew Raiskums, wanted to wait until the right combination of soloists, choir members, instrumentalists and venue came together; their performance on Sunday afternoon showed that it was well worth the wait. Seldom performed in Melbourne, Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 is one of the crowning achievements of sacred choral music and deserves to be heard at its best.
Bridging the gap between music of the late Renaissance and early Baroque, the work has been a key part of the revival of Early Music in the twentieth century. When Concentus Musicus Wien under Nikolaus Harnoncourt released their recording in 1975 it came as a revelation of what could be achieved. There are various decisions to be made as to the order of the various pieces, which parts should be sung and by whom and what instrumentation should be used. Raiskum’s choice of sequencing is virtually the same as Harnoncourt’s and one thought to have its logic with the gradual introduction of the solo voices.
One of the greatest pleasures of the Harnoncourt Vespers was Nigel Rogers. In the Thomson twins, Daniel and Matthew, Raiskum has discovered tenor voices with vocal characteristics that could manage a Monteverdi “trillo” and the many passages of melismatic ornamentation with apparent ease. In fact, Daniel Thomson’s singing of Nigra sum was uncannily similar to that of Rogers’, timbre included. Everything he sang was characterized by singular musicianship, evenness of tone and great control. A more perfect match could not have been found when the brothers sang together in a most beautiful Duo Seraphim and an uncannily echoing Audi coelum. There is a substantial amount of music for the tenor soloists in the work and all of it was performed at an extraordinarily high standard.
The two soprano soloists, Jennifer Cook and Erika Tandiono, were less evenly matched but still blended very well together, with Tandiono’s less mature soprano pinging through from the lower line. Cook used the acoustic effectively, her lovely warm soprano resonating most pleasingly. Various other soloists were taken from the choir, but it was not always clear from the program exactly who was singing what. Some of the male singers were stronger than others, but overall their work was highly commendable. It was clear that one of the great strengths of the choir is that they have in their ranks singers who can sing solo parts successfully. Special mention should be made of the soprano members of the two choirs: three in one choir and four in the other. Their unflagging purity of tone was truly impressive. The precision of their attack in passages such as the “Ut collocet…” for the Laudate pueri Dominum was simply astonishing.
The third requisite component of this successful Vespers was the Chamber Players and a formidable line-up it was indeed. After the short initial plainchant Versicle, the full choir and instrumental ensemble burst forth in a thrilling toccata. Three sackbuts and three cornetti led the way and were a source of some wonderful music making throughout. The sackbuts were sometimes rich and mellow, at other times declamatory, while the cornetti were often piercingly beautiful and occasionally resembled the human voice. Several players covered more than one instrument, for example violins/recorders, viola da gamba/lirone, and theorbo/baroque guitar. Hannah Lane on baroque harp and Donald Nicholson on chamber organ also made excellent contributions.
Finally: the venue. The acoustic of Sacred Heart is very lively and in general was appropriate for this work. Inevitably there had to be some muddying of the sound and separations of the forces were limited. Whilst it was not always ideal, Raiskums placed his forces for maximum effect most of the time, making dramatic use of the organ loft at the back of the church, where the Thomson brothers were joined by Doug Kelly for a magical performance of Duo Seraphim: certainly one of the highlights of the afternoon. The echoes for Audi coelum benefitted from thoughtful placement and the soprano soloists took up various positions to good effect.
Perhaps the fifth element of a successful performance needs even greater emphasis. This magnificent work is full of rhythmic challenges with its cross rhythms and sudden changes of tempo. Napoleon himself might have been hard pressed to marshall his forces with so many diverse singers in so many different parts of the space. Added to this were all of the initial decisions as to who exactly would sing and play what when and how. It was clear that Andrew Raiskums was more than up to the job, with the end result being rewarded by a large, appreciative audience with cheers and a sustained standing ovation.
Gloriana Chamber Choir & Gloriana Chamber Players, directed by Andrew Raiskums, performed Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610) at Sacred Heart, Carlton, on November 23.