Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610: A Triumph at the Boston Early Music Festival

Nelida Nassar  06.21.2015

Jordan Hall, Boston was filled to capacity for one of the Boston Early Music Festival’s flagship events, a performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, which attracted many musicians as well as early music aficionados. The work features a rainbow of colors and a daring array of styles that inspired the whole of Europe. Offering a remarkable variety of textures and techniques, it interweaves plainchant melodies, exquisite Renaissance polyphony, and the dazzling opulence of baroque music and joins them to the drama of the newly invented operatic form. One of the summits of Italian seicento sacred music and a vivid example of Monteverdi’s genius, it laid the foundations of a new musical language, while still drawing heavily on tradition.

No evidence remains documenting how the piece was composed. Were the 13 parts to be performed as a single work; or could choirmasters select whatever they needed for a specific liturgical use? Or was it written simply for the pleasure of a secular aristocratic audience? According to the dedicatory preface to Pope Paul V, the five psalms of the Vespers alternate with “some sacred concertos suitable for chapels or for the Princely chambers”. These concertos are, in fact, motets for one or more solo voices. Their texts, which lie outside the Catholic liturgy (two of them are borrowed from the Song of Songs), occupy the place of traditional anthems. Incidentally, at the BEMF’s performance, there was no attempt to use the relevant plainchant to suggest the liturgical context for which these Vespers may have been intended.

The five chant-based, polyphonic settings of the psalms— “Dixit Dominus”, “Laudate pueri”, “Laetatus sum”, “Nisi Dominus” and “Lauda Jerusalem” — represent a wide variety of styles, though it is thought that all of them likely respect the archaic canons of sacred music. In contrast, the interspersed motets for solo voices and continuo — “Nigra sum”, “Pulchra es”, “Duo seraphim” and “Audi coelum” — were clearly selected by the composer for their expressive potential; and here, too, he seems less concerned to achieve the internal diversity characteristic of the more “modern” concerto than to show a prospective patron what he was capable of doing in the old manner as well as the new. The most important thing is that this beautiful, fully realized hybrid score has come down to us, however many contentious questions it may raise for musicologists today.

This landmark presentation brought together ten vocalists of the Boston Early Music Festival Vocal Ensemble and the ten-member Boston Music Festival Chamber Ensemble, supported by the three trombones and two cornetti of the Dark Horse Consort. Throughout the work’s individual parts Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, the musical directors of the Chamber Ensemble, brought out just the right degree of virtuosity in both the vocal and instrumental forces.

The performance hit its stride instantly, and the close relationship between the Vespers and Orfeo (Monteverdi’s earliest surviving opera, from 1607) was heard right in the opening sentence “God, make haste to come to my aid.” One is tempted to interpret this cry as evidence of the composer’s psychological state, for at the time he was languishing in the court of Mantua, burdened by financial worries and by the recent death of his beloved wife. The inclusion of the Gonzaga family fanfare (also featured in Orfeo) confirms a stronger link to Mantua than to Venice or Rome.

The opening numbers offered great dramatic presence and rhythmic edge, and one was impressed by the intimacy achieved in the duet of sopranos Shannon Mercer (stepping in at the last minute for the ailing Amanda Forsythe) and Teresa Wakim, their voices sensuously intertwined in Pulchra Es. Jason McStoots and Zachary Wilder made a fine pair of tenor soloists, displaying their dizzying talents (and flair for portraying the exotic), first in the motet Duo Seraphim – where they were joined by tenor Colin Balzer when the text mentions the Trinity – and then in Audi coelom, with its commanding roulades reminiscent of Orfeo. Baritone John Taylor Ward, basses Marco Bussi and Christian Immler, countertenor Reginald Mobley (replacing Nathan Medley), and mezzo Laura Pudwell were equally remarkable in lending the music just the right tonal coloration in both the numbers with full instrumental ensemble and those with only continuo accompaniment.

The playing of the cornettos and trombones as well as the two chitarrones was immaculate. The bravura of the sixth movement, Laetatus Sum, and the great (and mainly instrumental) composition Sonata sopra: Sancta Maria ora pro nobis were thrillingly executed, in addition to the meshing  of the ten soloists’ voices with the accompaniment was always perfectly balanced. This was a stunning performance, powered by a rare vitality and intensity of emotion, but which could still turn tenderly expressive at the appropriate moments. And it always respected the finesse everywhere evident in this astonishing masterpiece, with its uncanny blend of ancient nobility and striking modernity.

Perhaps because the performance was being given in a comparatively intimate concert hall, there was only sparing use of spatial effects, although the many musical dialogues and echoes – in the concertos (Pulchra es and Duo Seraphim) and the Magnificat – were effective enough. All in all, these Vespers made a huge impression on the audience, one that will surely remain with it for years to come

Stephen Stubbs: Conductor

Boston Early Music Festival Vocal Ensemble
Shannon Mercer & Teresa Wakim: Soprano
Laura Pudwell: Mezzo-Soprano
Nathan Medley: Countertenor
Colin Balzer, Jason McStoots & Zachary Wilder: Tenor
John Taylor Ward: Baritone
Marco Bussi & Christian Immler: Bass

Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble
Robert Mealy: Concertmaster
Julie Andrijeski: Violin
Laura Jeppesen: Viola
Phoebe Carrai: Violoncello
Robert Naim: Double Bass
Erin Headley: Viola da Gamba
Awi Stein: Organ
Paul O’Dette & Stephen Stubbs: Chitarrone
Maxine Eilander: Baroque Harp

Dark Horse Consort
Kiri Tollaksen & Alexander Opsahl: Cornetto
Greg Ingles, Erik Schmalz &  Mack Ramsey: Trombone

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