Martin Pearlman and the highly skilled forces of Boston Baroque gave us a splendid rendition last night (February 19) at 8 pm at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall of Claudio Monteverdi’s music for the Vespers of the Blessed Virgin. The performance will be repeated tonight at Jordan Hall and again on March 6th at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.
When Monteverdi published his collection in Venice in 1610, he was forty-three years old and nearing the end of his tenure at the Gonzaga court in Mantua. He had already completed several ballets and two operas — L’Orfeo and Arianna (the latter now lost except for the heroine’s touching lament). His published madrigals consisted of five books, ranging in style from the “first practice” of late Renaissance polyphony to the “second practice” of modern music, whose “irregular” dissonances Monteverdi eloquently defended as justified by the expressive requirements of the text. The original purpose of the Vespers is not known, although it might have been sung at the inauguration of a new order of chivalry by Vincenzo Gonzaga in 1608. Most probably Monteverdi, who by this time was seeking a position elsewhere (in August 1613 he was appointed maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s, Venice), intended the collection as a portfolio with which to demonstrate his abilities as a composer of sacred music in a variety of styles.
Opulent music such as this would be suitable for any one of the great feasts of the church year dedicated to the Virgin. To complete the liturgical sequence of the vesper service, Pearlman’s performance included the plainchant antiphons for the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin (August 15th) that would have been sung before each of its five psalms and concluding Magnificat. The psalms, each of which is based on the simple chant tone traditionally associated with its text, are also interspersed with non-liturgical motets in more up-to-date styles involving both instrumental and vocal soloists.
As explained in the program notes, the Vespers instrumentation—some of it only partially specified—calls for a traditional Renaissance grouping in three sections. Pearlman placed his substantial continuo ensemble of harpsichord, organ, cello, and two theorbos center stage, flanked by the strings on one side and wind and brass ensemble on the other. All the players showed the virtuosic solo skills and perfection of ensemble we have come to expect from Boston Baroque’s period instrumentalists. Sackbuts (early trombones), recorders, and cornetti provided varied color in solo and orchestral passages, while Marilyn Boenau’s dulcian (Renaissance bassoon) came to the fore in the marvelously agile “walking” bass variations of “Laetatus sum” (Psalm 121). In the “Sonata sopra Santa Maria” instrumental variations for violins, cornetti, and sackbuts on a short melodic fragment in varying metrical contexts were set against an unchanging soprano cantus firmus, a stunning demonstration of early Baroque virtuoso instrumental writing.
The five-part chorus of thirty singers was sometimes divided into two complete choirs placed either side of the stage. Whether declaiming chordal chants or engaged in intricate polyphony, they sang with straight tone (in seventeenth-century church choirs the top lines were sung by boys, male falsettists, or even castrati), clear enunciation, and nimble musicianship. The seven vocal soloists appeared in varying combinations, often featuring echo effects typical of seventeenth-century opera. The only solo song, on a text from the Song of Songs (“Nigra sum sed formosa”: I am black but beautiful), with its alternating recitative and arioso passages, was sung with wonderful expressivity by tenor Derek Chester. The two soprano soloists, Mary Wilson and Kristen Watson, had some difficulty matching their contrasting timbres—one soft and rounded, the other more brilliant—in the “love duet” “Pulchra es, amica mea,” but in later duets these two fine singers appeared to have found each other, so to speak. Tenors Aaron Sheehan and Derek Chester sang from opposite sides of the balcony in the madrigalesque setting of “Duo Seraphim clamabant ad alterum” (Two Seraphim were calling one to the other), joined by on-stage tenor Lawrence Jones (and chorus member) to depict the Three-in-One. Sheehan ably led the tenor duo in the stunning motet, “Audi coelum,“ with its punning echoes: gaudio (joy) becoming audio (I hear), and so on. An elaborate vocalise on the word “Omnes” (All) invited the entire ensemble to participate in a concluding prayer to the Virgin. Rhythmic transformations of the plainchant again alternated with instrumental ritornellos in dance rhythm in the hymn, “Ave maris stella,” set for divided and full choir, with solos sung by the two sopranos and baritone Donald Wilkinson. Finally, everything came together in the spectacular seven-voice Magnificat in which the stark simplicity of the chant tone, heard in each of the ten verses, contrasts with virtuosic duet writing for tenors, baritones (Sumner Thompson and Donald Wilkinson), and sopranos, and stunning ritornellos for cornetti and violins at the top of their range. The final Gloria Patri, beginning with a florid tenor solo brilliantly sung by Derek Chester and echoed by Aaron Sheehan, concluded with dramatic chordal declamation by the choir and a stirring contrapuntal Amen.
Coordinating shifting instrumental and vocal forces performing in a kaleidoscopic multiplicity of styles presents a tremendous challenge to the conductor of this work. Pearlman was up to the challenge with seamless pacing that balanced contrast and continuity. A nearly full house responded enthusiastically to this fine performance.