In the second concert of its 50th-anniversary season, the Cantata Singers with a roster of virtuoso instrumentalists filled the ornate marble spaces of St. Paul Church, Cambridge, on Saturday evening with the opulent and sometimes exotic sounds of Claudio Monteverdi’s 400-year-old Vespers of the Blessed Virgin. Ranging from solos and duets with obbligato instrumental accompaniment to five- and six-part psalm settings and a seven-part Magnificat, Monteverdi’s vespers represent a challenge to any music director in their variety of compositional styles and in the sheer scope of the musical forces required. Conductor David Hoose had it all well in hand: a choir of 48 voices (including 15 soloists who stepped out from the choir) and an ensemble of eighteen period instruments—cornettos, sackbuts, and strings, with recorders for special “heavenly” effects and a solid continuo group of lute, theorbo, chamber organ, harpsichord, and viola da gamba.
Dedicated to Pope Paul V and printed in Venice in 1610, Monteverdi’s compilation of music suitable for vespers on feasts of the Virgin Mary seems to have been intended to advertise his proficiency in a variety of church styles at a time when he was seeking to break away from employment at the Gonzaga court in Mantua. Not that he abandoned the language of madrigal and opera in the setting of sacred texts. In fact, the choral response to the opening chant versicle Deus in adiutorium meum (O God make speed to save me) is set against a brilliant fanfare lifted directly from the Toccata that opens his opera L’Orfeo of 1607, with an added dialogue for cornetto and violin, lilting dance-like ritornellos between the verses, and an exuberant Alleluia following the Amen. The solo motet Nigra sum sed formosa filia Ierusalem (I am a black but beautiful daughter of Jerusalem), on a text adapted from the “Song of Solomon,” moves freely between recitative and arioso in a manner reminiscent of Orfeo’s impassioned laments; tenor Jason Sabol artfully negotiated the flexible melody and its cadential ornaments. Another text from the Song of Solomon, Pulchra es, amica mea (You are beautiful, my love) employs poignant dissonances in a melting love duet for two sopranos (Hannah McMeans and Lisa Lynch). In Duo Seraphim, two tenors (Eric Perry and Jason Sabol) called to one another from opposite sides of the church, while a third (Stephen Williams) converged with them in a madrigalian conceit on the Trinity: Hi tres unum sunt (These three are one). In the fourth motet, Audi coelum verba mea (Hear, O heaven, my words), Perry’s ornate tenor solo was echoed by Sabol in a verbal play on the final word of each tercet, gaudio becoming audio, and so on. At the word Omnes (All), the entire ensemble joined in joyous triple-time praise of the Virgin.
Monteverdi’s grand design seems not to have reflected the liturgical order for any specific Marian feast, but rather a compendium of vesper music ordered by an increasing number of parts in the interspersed solo motets as well as in the five psalm settings, where the traditional plainchant psalm tones are embedded in increasingly opulent choral textures. In Laetatus sum (I was glad) choral passages alternate with variations for two sopranos (McMeans and Lynch) over “walking” bass lines. In Lauda Ierusalem Dominum (Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem), the plainchant cantus firmus in lively rhythms is sandwiched in the tenor between two three-voice choirs, only to emerge in the high sopranos for the final Gloria Patri. In the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria, a single phrase from a version of the Ave Maria, Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis (Holy Mary, pray for us), floats on top in the high sopranos, its eleven statements occurring quite independently of the larger structure of a virtuosic canzona for eight instrumental parts (four strings and four winds) and basso continuo. The hymn Ave maris stella (Hail, star of the sea) juxtaposed the first and seventh stanzas for double choir with settings of the five inner stanzas for separate choirs and alto and tenor solo, interspersed with ritornellos calling on various instrumental combinations including two “heavenly” recorders. The final Magnificat brought all these forces together: a six-voice motet, florid solos and duets, dialogues between upper and lower voices and near and distant singers, ritornellos for pairs of cornettos and high violins, and finally, the Gloria Patri with its dialogue for two tenors against the soprano plainchant, followed by a stunning seven-voice choral conclusion.
There is certainly more than one way to perform Monteverdi’s Vespers. David Hoose’s approach took full advantage of the reverberant acoustic and spatial possibilities of St. Paul Church, using varied dispositions of choir and vocal soloists. Rather than showy tempo contrasts, he chose moderate proportional speeds for triple-time sections that made musical sense. A somewhat smaller choir might have sounded more focused and in better balance with the instrumental forces. But under Hoose’s expert direction they sang with verve and accuracy, even though text declamation could frequently get lost, at least from my vantage point in the middle of St. Paul’s echoing space. Fortunately we were provided with a clearly laid out text and translation and—for those who like to do so—enough light to follow them. The vocal and instrumental soloists—too numerous to cite in their entirety—were on the whole excellent. The virtuoso roulades of the baroque-style violins were a delight, and it was a treat to hear the bright sounds of sackbuts and cornettos, expertly played without a warble or a whimper. All in all, a stunning performance, beautifully thought-out and executed, that held our unflagging attention.