Monteverdi’s Vesperis in Festis Beata Mariae Vergine is of particular significance to the Andrzej Markowski International Wratislavia Cantans Festival in Wrocław, Poland. According to no less an authority than Małgorzata Markowska, the delightfully indefatigable daughter of the Festival’s founder, it was the discovery of an early edition of the Vespers in Italy which provided the spiritual inspiration for Markowski to create what has become Poland’s most prestigious music festival in 1966. Apart from promoting Polish composers abroad, Markowski brought music as diverse as Handel and Honegger to his home country. He also conducted the first performance in Poland of many important works including, not surprisingly, the Monteverdi Vespers.

Ensemble La Fenice © Slawek Przerwa
Ensemble La Fenice
© Slawek Przerwa

Monteverdi has certainly been well fêted in this 450th year of his birth. Like the three extant operas, the Vespers have been frequently revisited with all manner of performances and recordings ranging from Gardiner’s earlier ebullient interpretation in Versailles to the recent authoritative recording by John Butt with the splendid Dunedin Consort.

Like Verdi’s Requiem written over 260 years later, the Vespers are almost as operatic as they are liturgical which probably explains their continued popularity after 400 years. The Vespers also send musicologists from Jeffery Kurtzman to Uwe Wolf into paroxysms of polemics as they issue infallible fatwahs about “definitive” performance traditions. Certainly the score leaves room for a lot more flexibility than purists may prefer and in opting for much smaller forces in Wroclaw, leader of the Ensemble La Fenice Jean Tubéry was closer to Andrew Parrott or John Butt’s more intimate approach. On the plus side, the 20-person ensemble of singers and instrumentalists brought commendable translucency to the partitura but conversely a lamentable lack of Harnoncourtian depth and drama.

The stupendous setting of the 17th century University Church of the Blessed Name of Jesus in Wrocław satisfied both of Monteverdi’s performance alternatives of “ad Sacella sive Principum Cubicula accomodata Opera". The acoustics were not excessively reverberant and ensemble piano tutti for the most part clear and well textured.

Tubéry followed the accepted baroque pitch and as is generally the custom (with the notable exception of Gardiner) both the “Lauda Jersualem” and Magnificat were transposed down a fourth. Tubéry’s wizardry on the cornett was much in evidence as he often left the conductor’s podium to join fellow cornettist extraordinaire Lambert Colson. The opening bravura trills and runs in “Domine ad adiuvandum” created a suitably heraldic impact and there was more virtuosity in the “Sonata sopra Santa Maria ora pro nobis”. There was also outstanding, raspy sackbut playing from the three trombonists led by Arnaud Brétecher.

It has been suggested that the lengthy scoring for sackbuts in the Vespers was because Monteverdi actually wrote them as a “job application” piece to succeed Giovanni Gabrieli as maestro di cappella at the Basilica di San Marco where sackbuts and cornetts had been the predominant instruments of choice since 1568. Optional use of trombones in the “Dixit Dominus” and the instrumental ritornello between the verses of “Ave maris stella” was one which Tubéry wisely adopted.

There was a lot of moving around by the performers during the course of the work, most notably by Tubéry himself, who when not conducting or playing the cornett was content to sit down and listen to the “Nigra sum” and “Pulchra es” motets without giving any direction at all. 

“Nisi Dominus aedificaverit domum” was performed with both singers and instrumentalists divided into equal parts on either side of the nave, creating a visually interesting but curiously spatial stereophonic effect.

The principal difficulty was that with only 9 singers, the heftier choral sections such as the falsobordone chanting in “Domine ad adiuvandum” or “Laudate, pueri, Dominum” lacked dramatic effect or musical punch. Admittedly, Nicolas Achten managed to play both theorbo and add to the vocal forces in “Ave Maris stella” but this did little to improve the overall depth of the cantus firmus. Sopranos Fanie Antonelou and Lina Lopez sang with more prudence than panache.

The vocal shortcomings were even more disconcerting in the solo tenor passages with a prosaic performance from Jan van Elsacker. The fascinating “Duo Seraphim” concerto lacked potency due to poor roulades and trilling and the tricky melismatic passages needed much more precision and finesse. “Audi, coelum, verba mea” suffered from similar problems with the off stage tenor barely audible. Young counter-tenor William Shelton was more impressive.

Monteverdi was never short of ambition and the fact that the Vespers were dedicated to Pope Paul V indicated that he was not prepared to mooch around in Mantua forever. The real origin, purpose, form and stylistic veracity of the Vespers will assuredly continue to fascinate and infuriate musicologists, but there is no doubt that this is music of the highest calibre and originality. Unfortunately, this particular performance of Monteverdi’s masterwork left much to be desired.