One of the good things about anniversaries is that they occasionally tempt you to go things you wouldn't normally consider that turn out to blow your socks off. Which is precisely what happened to us at Queen Elizabeth Hall last night, where the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment treated us to Claudio Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers of the Blessed Virgin ("Vespro della Beata Vergine" in Italian). We were tipped off by a friendly choral expert that it's a fabulous work, and that it's been rarely performed recently. In view of its 500th anniversary this year, there are several performances (see here for the list ).

500 years on, the work retains its ability to excite and enthrall. Even in the relatively non-resonant atmosphere of a concert hall, Monteverdi shows an ability to create a soundscape. It's as if the different vocal lines gradually fill in a painting, one brush-stroke at a time, until you're overwhelmed by a mass of colour. And if you think religious music is all staid and proper, think again: there's a wide variety of different styles and feelings: dance music, lovelorn romance and elegy all find their way into the proceedings. The result put me more in mind of an entertainment for a renaissance noble family than of an event for a large church or abbey: this may or may not be right since the music was probably written for the Ducal chapel at Mantua (but no-one's quite sure).

Part of the effect came from the way the work was played last night. The so-called "Choir of the Enlightenment" wasn't so much a choir as a collection of 20 soloists, as became clear through the evening when each of the singers displayed top-of-the-range virtuosity as they took solo or duet slots. When all were singing together, the combination of power and intimacy was spellbinding.

Finally, there's something special about seeing a work that's quite that old performed on authentic instruments. Two giant theorbos were a wonderful sight, towering above their players, and the sound of the renaissance cornetts and sackbuts is quite different from the brass in a modern orchestra, lending a colour all of its own.

It makes me marvel at the sheer diversity of classical music. Any time I might think I'm knowledgeable about the subject, something like this comes along to remind me that the Western classical music canon has 600 years plus worth of material from countries across the globe, and there's always something wonderful and different to discover.

28th April 2010

The same artists are performing the same programme on May 2nd at St George's Bristol.