“To perform it is to court disaster; to write about it is to alienate some of one’s best friends”. Thus quipped the musicologist Denis Arnold regarding one of the most sublime, most hotly contested, pieces of early music, Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine. No such disaster was in store in the performance of it in last night’s luminous rendition – not with Harry Christophers at its helm. Almost two years to the day, The Sixteen were back in Dublin in a packed St Patrick’s Cathedral, though this time their numbers had swelled to twenty and their period-instrument orchestra was in tow. In this august setting, Harry Christophers’ group were continuing their world-tour of Monteverdi’s choral masterpiece, one which opened in Winchester’s Cathedral in late 2014 and which has also included a highly acclaimed hour-long BBC documentary entitled Monteverdi in Mantua: The Genius of the Vespers.

The Sixteen © Molina Visuals
The Sixteen
© Molina Visuals

To borrow from Jonathan Swift, a former Dean of St Patrick’s, given its Brobdingnagian size, (90 minutes) one of the issues around the programming of this ambitious work is to break or not to break? Christophers chose to have an interval after the Nisi Dominus and while it provided a no-doubt much-needed human relief (the Cathedral pews not being as comfortable as the Concert Hall for one thing) it was undeniably disruptive from a musical perspective. The other aspect around the programming is of course the highly contentious ordering of the pieces (no definitive order was stipulated by Monteverdi) and the inclusion or omission of certain pieces (there is a school of thought which suggest that some of the motets, Nigra Sum or Duo Seraphim for example, are not part of the Vespers). Not unfamiliar with daring reordering and alterations, in last night’s concert, Christophers merely placed the Audi Coelum after Sonata sopra Sancta Maria post interval and not in the more normal order after the Nisi Dominus.

In part due to its complexity, in other part due to its greatness and the ill-tempered controversy surrounding it, there is a temptation to institutionalize this magnum opus, preserving it as a choral monument instead of treating it as a living work to be constantly explored and rediscovered afresh. Last night, Christophers breathed life into this Vespers imbuing it with passion and energy in the more fulsome sections, and a sense of awe and reverence in the ethereal moments. From my felicitous position in the choir stalls, I had a clear vantage point of the conductor’s facial expression. Mouthing every word that the choir was singing, Christophers poured himself into the music, breathing it and living it, the very sentiments etched on his brow, urging his singers on by his own magnetism. Experiencing the power of his gaze at close quarters, and watching the supple gestures of his hands, it was a powerful reminder just how pivotal a director is at shaping the music.

And how sensitively did The Sixteen respond to all his directions. From the full-bodied opening Deus in adiutorum bristling with energy to the wonderful lightness and crisp rhythms of Nisi Dominus The Sixteen consistently impressed with their scintillating intonation and the full weight of their tone. Like a sixteen cylinder engine car reacting to the lightest touch of the controls, they responded immediately to the mercurial changes of mood as at the end of Laudate Pueri from the spirited “Gloria” to the solemn and stately “Sicut”. There were many moments of great beauty, for instance when the choir entered in the Audi Coelom on the word “Omnes” flying off in florid, melismatic lines or the opening of the Magnificat with its kaleidoscope of sounds.

These engaging choral moments were interspersed with strong solo singing in particular from bass Eamonn Dougan, soprano Grace Davidson and tenor Mark Dobell. There was a dramatic use of the Cathedral’s space in Audi Coelum as tenor Jermey Budd sung from the pulpit and an invisible Dobell sung from behind the altar with electrifying effect. There was a touching purity to the sopranos Davidson’s and Morton’s rendition of the sensual Pulchra es, a verse from the Song of Songs. 

Credit also goes to the fine musicians of the orchestra with their period instruments who did an excellent job of accompanying the singers, and if an odd splash in the intonation among the brass occurred, it did not detract one bit from the astutely shaped and finely focused lines of accompaniment.

In such a complex, multifaceted work, no one performance is ever going to fully satisfy. And yet as the final Gloria rang out in all its glorious, spine-tingling polyphony, this was a performance which ultimately had the power to touch both mind and heart.