Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine, Durham Cathedral and Sir John Eliot Gardiner – a glorious combination of music and architecture, in the hands of a man who made his name bringing the Vespers out of obscurity and into their well-deserved place in the concert repertoire. The tickets sold out rapidly, and it was clear from listening to conversations in the queue to get in that a lot of people had travelled a long way for what promised to be a very exciting evening.

Massimo Giannelli
Massimo Giannelli

Sir John Eliot Gardiner made imaginative use of the cathedral’s space, particularly in the solo movements, by carefully positioning singers and instrumentalists around the building; in the pulpit, and way up in the heights of the triforium galleries and at times it was almost impossible to work out where the music was coming from. The tenor trio Duo Seraphim was particularly effective as the sound fizzed around the building, passing seamlessly from one distant voice to another.

For the penultimate movement, the lovely Ave Maris Stella, the choirs moved first to the high altar, where the full beauty of their exquisitely controlled singing as rang down the building. Then they came to sing in the crossing under the tower, where the two halves of the main choir stood back-to-back facing the two sections of the transept audience; an impressive feat of time-keeping as I’m not sure that Sir John Eliot Gardiner was visible to any of them at that point.

Another, apparently late, staging decision was to move the main performance space forwards past the front of the central crossing. Singing right under the tower at Durham is always tricky, as the dizzying heights of the vault suck up the sound, and in a piece such as this, full of intricate vocal and instrumental detail, the repositioning made perfect sense.

Unfortunately, this meant that the seats in the transept were now behind the choir, and the only view we had was on the hastily erected video screens. By the time the music had come around the corner, and past one of Durham’s massive pillars all that exquisite detail that those in the nave seats were relishing was lost, and we were left with a rather lovely and distant mush, especially in the big choruses, and a sense of something great happening, far away. The soprano voices and the lovely recorders came across best, their laser-like precision seeming to cut directly through the stone, but the tenors and the brass instruments suffered, and sounded somewhat shrill, although I hasten to add that friends in the nave assured me that the sound there was wonderful.

Finally, during the final ecstatic climax to the Magnificat that ends the work, the long awaited goosebumps arrived, as with one final effort the singers managed to blast through the massive pillars, and we had some sense of what the rest of the audience had been hearing.

There is no doubt that this was a glorious performance, much appreciated by everyone there, but for those of us in the transepts, we saw only shadows of the instruments on the walls of the tower, and a sense that what we had experienced was only a shadow on the wall of a cave.