Melbourne hasn’t exactly been starved of opportunities to hear Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers, with performances by Newman College and Concerto Italiano in recent years. It was Ensemble Gombert’s duty to present something new in what has become a well-furrowed field, and they did this admirably by presenting the very rarely heard organ-only version of the Vespers in their recent Local Heroes concert at the Melbourne Recital Centre.
In one sense, one loses very little by hearing the Vespers in this configuration: most of the vocal music remains and was only ever intended to be accompanied by a continuo department, even if modern performances often lard this up by doubling voices with instruments. At another level, something pretty critical is lost, namely the lavish and virtuosic instrumentation with which listeners to the work have become familiar. But an unexpected gain is the six-part Magnificat, as Monteverdi more than makes up for the restriction in his palette with a setting that is remarkably different from the version most of us know.
Monteverdi’s intention in the Vespers seems to have been to show potential employers the full command he had both of conservative stile antico writing and the more progressive, Luzzaschi-derived moderno ‘recitative’ style that was very much in fashion in the courts and chambers of early seventeenth-century Italy. Monteverdi proved to be remarkably fluent in what was a very modern idiom at the time he wrote the Vespers, and it is probably the instances of that virtuosic style that draws most audiences to the Vespers. The stile moderno is eminently a soloist’s style and, as a result, it is critical that singers with the capacity to realise not just technical difficulties, but also the affective and rhetorical difficulties, form the quintet of soloists (two sopranos, two tenors and one bass) that constitute the core of the soloist group. The casting of the tenors in particular is critical, with two lengthy monodies (Nigra sum and Audi caelum) and two parts of a trio (Duo seraphim) forming the bulk of the virtuosic demands made on the singers.
The strongest of the soloists was Michael Strasser (bass) whose part, although important, occupies just a fraction of the soloists’ time. Strasser’s singing was confident, well produced, focussed, and characteristic — a line really worth listening to, even if at the bottom of the texture. Sopranos Carol Veldhoven and Katherine Lieschke did a creditable job with Pulchra es, but the fact that their voices point in quite different directions undermined the sinuous interweaving and interlocking that is supposed to characterise this movement. Lieschke was on finer form in her solo in the Magnificat.
The finest singers in the line-up for a performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers need to be the two tenor soloists; Ensemble Gombert’s choice fell on two choristers, Vaughan McAlley and Tim van Nooten, the latter of whom took the two longer “concertos”, Nigra sum and Audi caelum. Both tenors largely got around the notes (itself a formidable challenge, and not one to be dismissed lightly), but neither gave the sense of the nonchalant ease Italians of the period called sprezzatura, nor of passionate commitment to sound or text. Duo seraphim, a conceptualisation in sound of what it would be like for two angels to call to each other across the vault of heaven, lacked a sense of ecstatic engagement.
Part of the difficulty the singers in general experienced with this music must be put down to the decision to perform at what seems to have been the high Italian pitch that was apparently common in Monteverdi’s day. In a work already notated in a punishing tessitura (the tenor soloists are largely singing in the top fourth of their voices), to take the music even higher in pitch served no one. The voices were cruelly pushed in ways that were unnecessary to the music. John O’Donnell’s direction was largely economical and commonsensical, but he was unwilling just to let moments of rhetoric sit — Duo seraphim’s transitions from three parts to one in the second part of the concerto was a moment in case, where the seam was just pasted over: one got no sense of how remarkable the Christian claim for the triune nature of God was. The magic of Monteverdi as a reader of texts resides in moments like these, and they should be played for all they are worth.
Ensemble Gombert may be many things, but it is not a choir of soloists. The strongest performances in the concert actually came from the massed body of the choir in the two psalms without soloists. Nisi Dominus was lucid, rhythmically incisive (tricky, given the density of the texture and the slow movement of the harmonies) and mobile. The Ensemble sang Lauda Jerusalem in a lower transposition, providing welcome relief for all, and it was a thrilling and engaged performance even at the lower pitch. Both of these psalms provide moments of contrast of mood at the doxology and I would have preferred a stronger change of gear to register this — a change of dynamic or a different vocal colour. But both see Monteverdi in the stile antico and, not coincidentally, the Ensemble on home territory, giving performances indicative of the Ensemble at its best.
John Weretka reviewed Ensemble Gombert’s performance of Claudio Monteverdi: Vespers of 1610 (Organ version), directed by John O’Donnell, at the Melbourne Recital Centre on February 13, 2017.