The fiery excellence of Handel and Haydn Society’s collective effort made Monteverdi’s epic masterpiece sparkle like a star.
By Susan Miron
Like many music-lovers, I never miss an opportunity to hear Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 (a.k.a. “Vesper della Beata Vergine”). So I was predictably on hand on Friday evening (there was a performance on Sunday afternoon at Sanders Theatre as well as one on Saturday evening at NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art) to hear the Handel and Haydn Society‘s exhilarating, virtuosic performance of Monteverdi’s masterpiece of (largely) sacred compositions, under its highly respected music director since 2008, Harry Christophers.
At the time of its composition, Monteverdi’s (1567-1643) Vespers was, by a long shot, the most audacious and ambitious work of music ever composed. Monteverdi published the piece when he was 43, close to the end of his long tenure at the court of Gonzaga in Mantua. Many scholars speculate that these ingenious, gorgeous settings of Marian motets were made to be a calling card, an attention getter that would help Monteverdi procure another job, probably the prestigious one that he got in 1613 – the maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s in Venice, which held until his death in 1643.
This expansive work consists of 13 musical sections, including psalms and motets used in the Catholic Vespers service. Monteverdi felt that “The Vespers” could be played on organ with a choir, but I cannot imagine these crackling, iridescent colors could be generated by an organ alone — you would lose so much of the beguiling diversity of sound the composer’s arrangement of instruments provides. (Monteverdi ultimately left the orchestration up to the musical director, which makes each performance of this work distinctive).
Monteverdi’s Vespers is the perfect music to accompany various Marian feasts during the year; the texts he selected resonate nicely with these gatherings. Monteverdi ingenuously built all of the piece’s major movements – psalms, sonata, hymn, the entire Magnificat – on the traditional Gregorian plainchant for the chosen texts. In addition, the Vespers includes a sonata, as well as non-liturgical motets, which Monteverdi interpolates between the psalms. It opens memorably, for 15 quiet seconds of a Gregorian chant, which suddenly blossoms in sound and spirit when it quotes from the exuberant, ear-grabbing orchestral opening from his 1607 opera, Orfeo. The score, an hour and a half long, is full of ingenuity and variety, with clever text-painting and other effects such as “shaking” of the voice, a tremolo done to impressive precision here by three voices in Duo Seraphim.
Harry Christophers knows this piece intimately, and obviously loves it as deeply as he understands it. His 2014 2 CD recording of this work features two of Friday’s singers — tenors Jeremy Budd and Mark Dobell, as well as the excellent harpist Frances Kelly (who played the equivalent of at least 10 harp concertos) and cornettist Helen Roberts. The discs also include the British group The Sixteen, of which Christophers is founder and conductor. He seemed, all evening, to be thoroughly enjoying the music, whether he was conducting or just marveling as he listened to the singers.
The Handel and Haydn’s 18-piece period-instrument orchestra was superb. The continuo section — harpist Frances Kelly, Elizabeth Kenny on chitarrone, and organist Ian Watson — were outstanding, playing virtually all the time. A member of the lute family, the chitarrone might be thought of as the orchestral analog of a giraffe, with its extremely extended neck and two peg boxes. Given the instrument’s extended strings, a performer can play bass notes and then play chords on the higher strings. In “Nigra sum” (from The Song of Songs, “I am a black but beautiful daughter of Jerusalem”) the chitarrone and harp pluck a lovely filigree of notes that weave around the tenor soloist, Mark Dobell. They similarly adorn another excerpt from Song of Songs, “Pulcra est” (“You are beautiful, my love”), sung ravishingly by sopranos Sonja DuToit Tengblat and Margot Rood.
Another somewhat unfamiliar instrument, the sweetly named forerunner to the modern-day bassoon, the dulcian, was adroitly played by Andrew Schwartz. Winds included recorder players Heloise Cegruglillier and Christopher Krueger, cornettists Helen Roberts, Sam Goble, and Cormack Ramsey, and sackbut (forerunners of the trombone) players Greg Ingles, Erik Schmalz, and Cormack Ramsey. (The cornetts, curved wooden instruments wrapped in leather with the same range as the trumpet, appear with the sackbuts for the Big,Thrilling Moments.) The violin superstars were Aisslinn Nosky and Christina Day Martinson. Violists were Karina Schmitz and Jenny Stirling; the cellist was Guy Fishman and the bassist was Robert Nairn.
The soloists were all mightily inspiring. In the transfixing “Duo seraphim,” with cello and organ, two angels, sung by tenors Dobell and Jeremy Budd, are joined by a third tenor, Jonas Budris, when the text turns to dramatizing the Trinity. At the words, “these three are one” the three voices land on a single note. Beautiful. Baritone David McFerrin sang soulfully during the “Ave Maris Stella,” Woodrow Bynum was lovely in the “Laetatus sum,” and Jeremy Budd sang an evening’s worth of virtuosic melismas in “Gloria Patri.”
The 20 voice Handel and Haydn chorus, which includes all but one of this evening’s soloists, is wonderful; it boasts many of Boston’s best singers from other superb ensembles, including four members of Lorelei Ensemble (Emily Marvosh, Sarah Brailey, Margot Rood, Sonja DuToit Tengblat, and two from the Renaissance choir Blue Heron (soloists David McFerrin and Margot Rood). The fiery excellence of the collective effort made Monteverdi’s epic masterpiece sparkle like a star.
Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. She is part of the Celtic harp and storytelling duo A Bard’s Feast with renowned storyteller Norah Dooley and, until recently, played the Celtic harp at the Cancer Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital.