The version of Monteverdi’s Vespers generally familiar to us is his collection of 1610, ecclesiastically suitable for use at Vespers on any day sacred to the Virgin Mary, or to female saints, and that 1610 collection has come to be performed as a recognisable body of work in its own right, whether or not it was ever intended to be heard always in that exact configuration. Naturally, Monteverdi wrote far more church music than just the 1610 Vespers, and I Fagiolini used this concert to showcase another collection, this time dated to 1641, and containing psalms appropriate for the feast days of male saints (by way of contrast to 1610). However, these “Other Vespers” are not exclusively by Monteverdi: Robert Hollingworth has included pieces by Monteverdi’s contemporaries Bovicelli, Donati, Usper, Viadana and Gabrieli, as well as earlier bits from Monteverdi’s own corpus (such as his 1624 Salve, O Regina). So, this is a Vespers from a range of time periods, a range of hands and a range of styles; and despite some lovely music-making, it made for a very uneven concert experience.

I Fagiolini and Robert Hollingworth © Keith Saunders
I Fagiolini and Robert Hollingworth
© Keith Saunders

We had several mismatches to deal with. The first was that I Fagiolini had gathered several exceptionally skilled, experienced early musicians (including the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble), but had recruited relatively young singers, so that the instrumental line and passion of execution regularly outshone vocal delivery on stage. The next was that Saffron Hall’s acoustic, for this music, is definitely best exploited by a few instruments or voices at a time; so, a sonata played by three instruments could (and did) completely eclipse full-company efforts. Uccellini’s Sonata no. 2 La luciminia contenta (1645) swiftly became a virtuoso demonstration of how one violin (exquisitely well played by Bojan Cicic) can be singlehandedly richer, fuller and more expressive than an entire orchestral string section, let alone the small group of period instruments on offer. And the distribution of the different musical textures, as we moved from piece to piece, could feel lumpy: particularly strange was the decision to end with a solo Salve, O Regina, rather than a rousing choral finale. When there was so much music to choose from, given the latitude of choice already exercised, it seemed strange that we didn’t finish up with something more generally compelling as an evening of music. The shifting arrangements of singers and instrumentalists also felt awkwardly static; playing was always better when a few musicians were able to congregate close together at the front of the stage, but too often they were distributed far apart, and musical chemistry was harder to establish as a result. Cicic seemed to be emitting enough musical chemistry for everyone by himself, most of the time; but an ensemble feel was noticeably lacking, particularly surprising given that this concert came at the end of a long tour for the group which began at Glyndebourne in May.

Of course, there were some glorious musical treats to be had. Apart from the rapturous Uccellini sonata, which turned out to be quite disorientatingly, show-stealingly good, we had a languorously stunning Dulcis amor Iesu from Donati, slowly evolving from a series of echoing phrases into an ecstatic climax. Monteverdi’s own music feels full of courtly magnificence, daringly layered and packed with contrasting textures, from luscious choral moments to expressive, challenging exchanges between solo voices. His Dixit Dominus (secondo) (1641) pits passages of flamboyant attack against moments of luxurious serenity, and Salve, O Regina (1624) sounded immediately like L’incoronazione di Poppea to me, positively erotic in its beautiful rising phrases, sung with supple, agile control by gifted young tenor  Matthew Long and accompanied with exceptional sensitivity by Lynda Sayce. Mezzo-soprano Ciara Hendrick excelled throughout, particularly in Confitebor (secondo) (1641), sounding utterly at home and beautifully clear. Bass Christopher Adams showed husky promise, though his voice sounds like it still has room to develop and settle.

This is early music of great technical interest, which requires remarkable prowess from all contributors; but though many people clearly enjoy getting immersed in its technical details, you do not need to be a musicologist, or any kind of expert, to appreciate and enjoy its beauty for yourself. The nice thing about a mixed programme like this is that it offers treats for all sorts of tastes and palettes; the downside, that it’s hard for us to truly lose ourselves in the moment, when we are constantly being addressed anew by another voice, another style, or another idea, particularly when we discover the almost jazz-like ornamentation from the cornetto muto in Bovicelli’s Ave verum corpus (1561/1592), inspired by a Palestrina madrigal. So, overall the evening veered away from the sacred towards the unusual, the strange and the surprising: and, as a wider illustration of Monteverdi’s sound world, and the aural context of his contemporary composers, it offered plenty to learn, and think about. 

 

An earlier version of this review incorrectly identified the tenor soloist in “Salve O Regina” as Hugo Hymas. With thanks to Robert Hollingworth, we are happy to correctly credit Matthew Long.