Monteverdi Vespers | The Song CompanyOriginal photograph by Adam.J.W.C.

What a truly wonderful performance! As soon as I heard that Australia’s premier vocal ensemble was teaming up with its most exciting early music orchestra, I resolved not to miss it. And my expectations were more than fulfilled.

Monteverdi’s Vespers was described in the advance publicity as having some of the most "goosebumptastic" choruses of the past 400 years. While wincing slightly at the neologism, I agree with the sentiment. Thomas Wilson, the conductor of the St Mary's cathedral choir, interpreted these choruses, settings of the psalms which form the architectural backbone of the work, with appropriately Italianate verve, and although some of the coloratura got lost in the cathedral's vast acoustic, the choruses shone like living pillars striding through the nave of this majestic building. The reverberation time of this place is about four seconds, so when pieces finished loud the sound seemed to last until it was absorbed into the stone.

The Vespers are extraordinary. Written to show just what Monteverdi could do, they secured him a post at St Marks in Venice, which he held for the rest of his life. While much of it is based on plainsong, at the same time it utilises the full range of techniques of the seconds pratica, the new expressive, sometimes florid style which Monteverdi himself had done so much to develop.

I don't know a single work in the Western canon where so much diversity is harnessed with such formal control. In the first part, five choral psalms and a hymn are interspersed with five “concerti – pieces for a single or a few singers – and preceded by an overture. The second part, the Magnificat, is like an extremely condensed reflection of this grand design – twelve short, very contrasting sections each referring in some way to one of the pieces in the first half. This was encapsulated in the Gloria of the Magnificat, where the echo tenors, displayed so effectively in the concerto Audi coelum, are unexpectedly accompanied by plainsong, thus linking the two most disparate elements of the entire piece. In these, Richard Butler's clear, sunny tenor was echoed with perfect sympathy for the acoustic of the cathedral by Richard Black.

Indeed one of the features of this performance was the way in which the cavernous multiple spaces of the cathedral were utilised. At first it looked like a standard performance, but soon various members of the Song Company appeared in the pulpit – Amy Moore and Anna Fraser sang the exquisite Pulchra Es there, with almost unearthly, meltingly perfect, blend. As the music became more and more diverse, the performers began to depart from the crossing, and sing or play from the choir and the side aisles, like the three tenors and their continuo instruments in the concerto Duo Seraphim. This piece starts with one of the most staggeringly beautiful chain of suspensions even in Monteverdi, and the three voices involved, separated by several tens of metres from each other and yet still holding it perfectly together, sounded indeed as if they were singing from the heavens. By the end this monumental work there was so much rearrangement of the singers and players around the cathedral that the whole work seemed to make an organic connection with the space in which it was performed, the resulting constant state of flux imbuing the architecture of the music and the building with life.

This was also reflected in the imaginative allocation of passages of music between the members of the Song Company, the Choir of St Mary's, the girls from Santa Sabina School (that astonishing musician and educator Karen Carey seems to be everywhere that some remarkable musical event is taking place) – and the orchestra. The Orchestra of the Antipodes is game for anything, and they, even the harpist Hannah Lane, carted their instruments all over the East end of the cathedral. Although the string sound tended to be swallowed up by the huge space, the cornetti, with their unusual sound half-way between a clarinet and a trumpet, and the sackbuts, were as clear as you could wish for.

In such a historically well-informed performance the only serious flaw was the fact that the final psalm, and the whole of the Magnificat, were played a fourth higher than intended (with relation to the rest of the piece). Many editions convey this mistake, which has to do with a wrong interpretation of the disposition of the clefs in the original score. Of course, modern tenors, especially the three we heard here, and indeed modern singers and players for the most part, can sing or play that high with ease, but judging by the tessitura of most of Monteverdi’s existing tenor parts, his own tenors couldn’t. But the players that it completely floors are the poor cornettists – It’s just simply too high, and although Matthew Manchester and John Foster are masters of these instruments and played beautifully, it is too much to ask.

But this was one of the best performances of this work I have ever heard, including my own three performances with the Sydney Chamber Choir many years ago. It was (shall I join the club? Shall I dive in? Yes! don’t wince!) spinetinglicious.

The Song Company presents
Monteverdi Vespers of 1610
with the Choir of St Mary’s Cathedral Sydney, Santa Sabina Chamber Choir, and the Orchestra of the Antipodes

Conducted by Thomas Wilson

Venue: St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney
Dates: 15 September 2017


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