There’s limited evidence that Monteverdi intended his Vespro della beata Vergine, a great volume of liturgical pieces published in Venice in 1610, as a single unified work, much less for it to performed as such. But the resurgence of the Vespers in popularity in the second half of the 20th century has seen conductors and musicologists alike biting the bullet and performing the whole work in its 90-minute glory, making for an immense, if at times slightly incoherent, concert.

Robert Howarth © Robert Workman
Robert Howarth
© Robert Workman

One would think the Academy of Ancient Music, directed by Robert Howarth, would be best-placed to perform this challenging but moving work. The Vespers themselves are reasonably versatile: they would originally have been performed with one singer to a part, occasionally with more of a choral effect, but the decision to use a twenty-strong choir with step-out soloists and two dedicated sopranos and tenors, as the AAM chose, is not unusual. It was not, however, completely successful.

Problems were noticeable from the start. Howarth announced his intention for the work to run “quasi-liturgically”, in context, “as Monteverdi would have heard it” (presuming, one would guess, that Monteverdi did actually intend this as one work). This meant including the antiphons and versicles, and running through between psalms, antiphons and sacred concertos as if this was being performed as a sacred text. But the AAM did not have the luxury of a cathedral. The cavernous Barbican offers neither the acoustic nor the atmosphere of a religious setting, and many of the attempts towards religious theatricality failed – although the tenor echo from the back of the Barbican (in Audi, coelum) was effective, an attempt to repeat this effect later by performing from a side door felt disjointed and the sound did not carry. The strange, slow, procession-like walking of the soloists to their places for longer solo numbers also felt over-theatrical and wooden. 

But credit must be given to the quality of playing; the sensitivity with which William Carter, in particular, played his theorbo was quite outstanding. His musicianship in collaboration with Charles Daniels’ gentle, lilting but intense tenor made Nigra sum a particularly beautiful rendition of the moving concerto. Daniels outshone fellow tenor Thomas Hobbs, who lacked the warmth and flourish of Daniels’ runs, which was particularly noticeable in their duet passages. His Audio… dicam… and other echoed parts, however, were more moving.

Better balanced were stunning soprano Louise Alder, whose operatic vivacity brought a wonderful dynamism, and the lighter but fresh voice of Rowan Pierce. Pulchra es was exquisitely paced, and their frequent interjections throughout the rest of the work was most welcome.

It’s not an easy sing for the choir behind, but there were moments of real beauty, particularly in the oft-performed Magnificat, where the sense of balance and refinement for which the choir of the AAM are so respected came to the fore. This was let down by some occasionally ropey part-singing, and the unfortunate tendency to sing many of the sections a little blandly, particularly the Glorias. The Vespers are a strange mixture of Monteverdi’s two styles; his cantus-firmus psalm settings and his more melodic and even operatic concerti. The choir were particularly good at highlighting these differences, accentuating the driving polyphonic sections with aplomb; it was the more homophonic moments where they fell a little flat.

But where the voices sometimes lacked energy, the instruments were consistently at peak, for which some credit must go to Howarth. Impeccably balanced, the duetted pairs of instruments in the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria were perfectly aligned, as was so much of their playing. 

This year marks the 450th anniversary of the birth of Claudio Monteverdi, and if this concert showed anything, it was the awe-inspiring beauty and power that is still so present in his work. The AAM just need to embrace it.