Christina Pluhar and L’Arpeggiata brought their splendid recreation – performance is too weak a word – of Monteverdi’s Vespers to the Barbican... and it was a triumph. Few of us are authorities on musical practice in 1610, but everyone present just knew if the Vespers was ever performed then this was exactly how it sounded. Perhaps there is a manifesto element, but we cannot listen to music as if reading a job application. There are the convictions of scholars, and the convictions of leading musicians, and here the former yielded, for 90 minutes at least, to the latter. Maybe this is not a single work meant to be played entire, but performers are recreative individuals, and have demonstrated this problematic publication to be a perfectly performable unity.

L'Arpeggiata rehearsing at the Barbican
© Barbican/L’Arpeggiata

L’Arpeggiata was founded by Pluhar, their indefatigable director whose authority includes being herself a skilled performer on several Baroque instruments. Here she directed only, with pace (advertised at 105 minutes, it was over in 90) but with care and precision. In the complex pieces, above all the ten-part Nisi dominus, where half a beat ahead or behind – or both in different parts – muddies everything. Here too the sound of the instrumental ensemble sustained a many-voiced presence in the fullest passages, with each strand of the two cornetti, three trombones, strings and organ still audibly individual but producing a sonority as rich as the early 17th century can have known with such numbers. The duetting fiddlers, and much other virtuoso playing, in the instrumental Sonata sopra Sancta Maria wove a colourful tapestry to background the sopranos’ plainchant incantations.

Pluhar's group of singers and instrumentalists is an army of generals. Thus Nicholas Mulroy, seen in recent years as the leading Evangelist of his generation, stepped forward to sing the Nigra sum with suitable passion in the high-lying moments but seeming comfortable in its frequent low passages. But it is almost invidious to select one from many such moments and contributions from a remarkable team of vocal collaborators. The stream showed us how closely they were observing Pluhar’s beat and cueing.

The online image was also impressive in showing the stage picture, for there was a raised platform shaped as an inverted shallow 'V' for the singers, the organ at its centre, the instrumental ensemble seated below. Seating behind was provided for singers when not singing, so the stage picture reflected just the vocal forces used in each number, visually underlining the variety in the work. Reflecting the works colours were actual colours, a background lighting scheme that varied, unobtrusively but effectively, shifting mood and sonority, enveloping the performance space completely on screen and extending even up the sides of a quite dark auditorium. This had the effect of transforming a secular hall into a sacred space filled with light.

Monteverdi's deployment of his Toccata from L’Orfeo makes a thrilling launch to his Vespers, but online it was seen but not heard. We heard the applause of the audience welcoming L’Arpeggiata to the platform, but Pluhar’s downbeat was greeted by silence, as the ensemble visibly played and sang for the cameras if not the mics. Eventually someone switched on the sound but by then this first number was almost over. Only during its successor was the correct volume setting achieved by the broadcaster. The problem was preserved on the stream when checking next day, so there is a film of this prestigious event, beautifully designed and directed, but minus that iconic portal into its sound world. So this was an occasion where in a double sense you really had to be there for the full five-star experience.

This performance was reviewed from the Barbican live stream