Mentioning Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine 1610 (“Vespers for the Blessed Virgin” of 1610) leads to a wealth of commentary about prima pratica versus seconda pratica, precisely where and for whom the work was intended to be performed, whether it’s actually an integrated work and of course the idea(l) of “authenticity.” Written during the composer’s time in Mantua as an audition piece for a position in Rome, Monteverdi’s devotional masterpiece splices traditional polyphony alongside “concertos” in the then-developing operatic style of voice and harmony. The placement of these diverse forms continues to intrigue scholars, and Joshua Rifkin seemed downright thrilled to weigh in on Sunday as he conducted Cambridge Concentus in “Vespers Reimagined” at First Church In Cambridge.
Rifkin’s program notes described the choice to “restore the division Monteverdi had in mind and separate the [largely polyphonic] Vespers and [more operatic] concertos.” Several explanations by co-director David Kjar, concertmaster Marika Holmqvist and Rifkin throughout the program elaborated on this decision as well as the use of a “more nimble ensemble actually specified in the original publication.” Evidence ranged from Rifkin describing how seventeenth century print technology made printing vespers and concertos alongside one another cost effective but not necessarily true to Monteverdi’s intentions, to the sound of “ten virtuosos singers plus organ with other instruments used sparingly and strategically” itself.
That scholarly case in turn led to a restrained interpretation of the Vespers. There were few grand climaxes; instead homogeneity of mood prevailed, devotional yet never exaggeratedly solemn. “Thus shall he raise his head” was sung stoically, like some truth that we already understand, in the Dixit Dominus, and “pray for the peace of Israel” was matter-of-fact and certain. This Vespers worked off of calm, modest faith, with some especially beautiful moments including the organic counterpoint and seamless, building conclusion of the Nisi Dominus, a flowing Lauda Jerusalem and the sweet recorders of the Magnificat.
Unfortunately the acoustics of First Church’s sanctuary were at odds with Monteverdi’s layered lines and Rifkin’s lithe forces. From the opening Responsorium, their sound was swallowed up by the space, resulting in a top-heavy, at times nasal tone with overly rounded edges. Even seated just five rows back from the stage, it was difficult to detect part separation or understand the texts that (according to Kjar) Monteverdi intended to be clearly declaimed amidst all of that contrapuntal richness. Far from the transparency Rifkin was no doubt seeking, the cornettos and strings became indistinct, with clear attacks melding into a cloud that was especially disappointing in the Ave Maris Stella. Separation of parts, articulation and harmonic transparency improved by the fourth-section Laetutus Sum. Soprano Molly Quinn’s clear, bright and above all big soprano rose above it all, delivering a meltingly smooth solo in the Magnificat.
Following intermission, the program moved into the Margaret Jewett Hall for its concerto portion. The more “intimate surroundings” described by Rifkin may have alluded to the scholarly suggestion that these motets, some of which are scored for just solo voice and organ, were performed in private chambers. Historical analysis apparently not only investigates origins but allows contemporary listeners to enjoy a drink: wine and cheese were served in the large room, with audience and ensemble members standing, sitting on folding chairs and otherwise relaxing on the hall’s small stage (still set up for some children’s’ play).
The informative but frequent concert talks, movement between rooms and informal setting might have interrupt the flow or feel of Monteverdi’s work. Yet choosing to perform these pieces in this room worked on musical as well as scholarly grounds. Starting with tenor Frank Kelley’s Nigra Sum, warmth, lyricism, clear textual delivery and vivid instrumental colors closed out the program. Sopranos Quinn and Ulrike Präger sang tight ascents in the Pulchra Es, and the dancing Sonata Sopra Sancta Maria really showed off the orchestra, with some especially spirited playing by Holmqvist (and even if the bright cornettos occasionally overpowered Quinn). Tenors Kelley and Eric Christopher Perry sang a sensitive, borderline sensual Audi Coeulm, and this motet’s organic, well-defined but never studied fugue closed out the program.
The “body of music we call the Monteverdi Vespers” (Rifkin’s description) is often discussed as a bridge between the late Renaissance and the Baroque, but it’s hard to imagine the composer himself cataloging his work into “old” and “new” parts (a distinction which, four hundred years later, seems quaint). Perhaps Rifkin’s most authentic idea is to absorb this work as a “musical banquet,” the product of a composer finding inspiration from his predecessors as well as his own time. Illuminating historically and musicologically, it was obviously a labor of love for Rifkin and the ensemble, with at least one member crying at its conclusion. Issues with space notwithstanding and beyond any “reimagining” implied by the title, Rifkin and Cambridge Concentus played music. This reviewer was more impressed by that than any scholarly argument.