Concert review: Monteverdi – ‘Vespers’

Claudio Monteverdi

The Vespers of the Blessed Virgin – Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)

Saturday 8th December 2012, Landmark Arts Centre, Teddington

Twickenham Choral Society & Brandenberg Baroque Soloists

Sopranos: Philippa Boyle & Grace Davidson

Tenors: Peter Morton & David Webb

Basses: Lukas Kargl & Charles Rice

Conductor: Christopher Herrick

Twickenham Choral Society, with the Brandenberg Baroque Soloists, and six solo singers, gave an enjoyable and very committed performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers to a sold out Landmark Arts Centre in Teddington.

Contrary to popular musical myth, Monteverdi did not write the Vespers especially for St Mark’s in Venice, though they may have been performed there. Nor were they specifically an ‘audition piece’ for the post of maestro di cappella. The work may have been written for wedding festivities in the church of St Andrea, Mantua, for the text contains the sensuous love poetry drawn from the Song of Solomon. The birth of the composer’s daughter, whose namesake was that of the Blessed Virgin, may also have been a motivation for the composition. Whatever the origins of the work’s composition, it is Monteverdi’s first sacred work. Published in Venice in 1610, the work is monumental in scale, requiring a choir large enough to cover up to 10 vocal parts in some movements, and split into separate choirs in others. The choir is also required to accompany several soloists.

Vespers were recited or sung in the evening, and the text of Monteverdi’s vespers adheres to the traditional order of the office of Vespers: it includes recitation of psalms, the singing of the Marian office hymn Ave Maris stella, and culminates in a Magnificat (the Song of Mary). The psalm settings are those used for the feast days of Mary and other female saints. In addition to these standard movements, Monteverdi also included motets for one, two, three and six voices, and an instrumental sonata movement into which the chant Sancta Maria ora pro nobis is skillfully woven. The work has become one of the most popular from this period of late Renaissance/early Baroque music, not least because it combines the profundity of the liturgy with secular music, and presents an array of musical forms – sonata, hymn, motet and psalm – without comprising the scale or cohesiveness of the complete work.

The venue for the concert, The Landmark in Teddington, a deconsecrated church turned arts centre, was perfect for this music in both atmosphere and acoustic, and there were times, particularly in the Concerto: Audi coelum, a tenor duet with “echoes” and choir, during which one of the tenors sang the echoes from the back of the apse, to the accompaniment of theorbo, when we might have been in San Marco, Venice 400 years ago.

The choir were joined by the Brandenberg Baroque Soloists, a new orchestra which plays period instruments, including three sackbuts, chamber organ, Baroque cornetti and theorbo. They provided an authentic accompaniment, underpinning the singing with devices distinct from this period such as ground basses, drones, and some fine ostinato ‘cello lines.

Founded in 1921, Twickenham Choral Society is an amateur vocal ensemble, which draws its membership from a wide area of west London, and has a proud tradition of performing a broad repertoire from every era. They rose to the many challenges of Monteverdi’s music and text (it is isn’t always easy to sing well in Latin) to give a highly committed performance which combined great clarity of diction and attention to detail, dynamic shading and colour, and at times deep emotion and drama. The polyphony and counterpoint were handled with aplomb, allowing us to enjoy the many strands of Monteverdi’s writing, and the choral set pieces were complemented by intimate writing for solo voices, accompanied by a single instrument, such as theorbo or ‘cello, or the choir. The first half closed with a rousing Psalm 147: Lauda Jerusalem, which shone with the celebratory joy implicit in the text.

This was an impressive and meticulously prepared performance, brought together under the skillful baton of conductor Christopher Herrick, who has been working with Twickenham Choral Society since 1974. I look forward to further performances by the society.

For further information about forthcoming concerts, please visit www.twickenhamchoral.org.uk

Brandenberg Baroque Soloists