Review: Monteverdi Vespers

LIZZIE BENNET: ‘Monteverdi’s Vespers, first performed (it is generally believed) in 1610, were giving an airing on Friday night in the Hall of Girton College, and the result was spectacular.’

girton Lizzie Bennet Monteverdi Sidgwick Vespers

Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine.

His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts?, Cambridge University Collegium Musicum, ?Choral scholars from Christ’s, Clare, Girton, Gonville and Caius, King’s, St John’s and Trinity Colleges?.  Conducted by Martin Ennis.

Girton College Hall – Friday 23rd April? and St John’s College Chapel – Saturday 24th April

Poor Girton. Its grounds and buildings are beautiful, it has great people, a successful boat club and a very good Chapel Choir, and yet it so often gets over-looked. Friends from Girton are rarely seen in their natural habitat, but rather in faculty buildings, or wandering the streets of the city centre looking slightly bemused. With the classic Cambridge Bubble mindset, in which the world beyond the Sidgwick Site, the New Museums Site and Castle Street exist only in a theoretical capacity, a trip to Girton is something seen as a one-off; something for a very special occasion only.

Friday night provided that occasion admirably. Monteverdi’s Vespers, first performed (it is generally believed) in 1610, were giving an airing on Friday night in the Hall of Girton College, and the result was spectacular. The work is notoriously difficult to produce: quite apart from the standard required of the singers, a historically accurate performance also calls for proficient players of rare instruments such as cornetts and sackbutts. It can also be difficult to sacred music in a secular setting (although in this particular case it seems that Monteverdi intended the work to “suitable for the chapels or chambers of princes” – quoting from the original edition). Monteverdi is generally (and perhaps flippantly) accredited with the ‘invention’ of opera, and although the movements of the Vespers constitute a Church service, there is still a highly potent dramatic element to the music. 

Francis Williams opened the evening with an attention-grabbing Intonation, and the choir and orchestra’s entry at Domine ad adiuvandum was tastefully dramatic. The first ‘movement’ was performed with aplomb and kept the audience’s attention to its end: no mean feat considering that the music does not modulate in nearly fifty bars! The chorus ‘movements’ were all highly-polished, although the first sopranos did seem to dominate at times, making the other parts difficult to hear. The decision to put Lauda Jerusalem, Dominum and the Magnificat down a fourth was slightly disconcerting originally, and, although there are strong musicological arguments for the decision, many listeners would have preferred to hear the vibrancy of the top notes in the soprano lines. Having said this, the basses’ bottom Ds were a joy to hear!

Wonderful as the chorus ‘movements’ are, the emotional centre of the Vespers is most apparent in the “sacred concertos”. Each of these was performed extremely well by the talented group of soloists. Matthew Sandy particularly shone with his tenor solos, and the Pulchra es, sung by Katherine Hambridge and Lucy Goddard, was also exquisite. 

Finally, Collegium Musicum deserve a mention. The group was formed in 2007, and members play professional reconstruction instruments provided by the University. The group was combined with His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts to form a Baroque orchestra. All the instrumentalists were of a very high standard, but the cornett players were particularly impressive – although that may just be because I have been trying desperately to coax a nice sound out of a cornett for a couple of months now, and am in awe of anyone who can make a block of wood covered in leather sound good.