Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine of 1610 follows what are arguably two of the composer’s greatest developments in music. His fifth book of madrigals, published in 1605, made forays into the compositional style we now recognize as “baroque”. Furthermore, two warmly received operas—the first of their kind—L’Orfeo, and L’Arianna, were published in 1607 and 1608, respectively. Elements from both these pieces figure prominently in the Vespers offered by Boston Baroque at Jordan Hall on Friday.
At the core of the collection of pieces that comprise the Vespers are nine interlocking motets and psalm verses, bookended with an initial versicle/response and concluding sonata/hymn/Magnificat. Motet settings are significantly less elaborate than the psalm settings, consisting often of just a solo or small ensemble of voices, yet employing a range of novel textures and compositional techniques. Contrast this to the psalm settings, which revel in the color of a much larger ensemble; these grander works set the related Gregorian plainchant—the bedrock melody for the Monteverdi’s monumental settings. It is the intense concentration of the hymns that remind us of the more familiar Monteverdi. Although sacred, these hymns recall the flexibility and experimentation of Monteverdi’s later secular madrigals, and this stark contrast has spurred a long-standing debate as to whether the hymns were intended to be performed as an integral part of the Vespers, or simply happened to accompany the work in its publication. Yet interspersions of miniatures such as we heard provide contrast to the more substantial psalm settings.
More operatic elements came in the bookends. The trumpet calls that announce the beginning of the Vespers are lifted directly from L’Orfeo. The concluding triptych reveals Monteverdi’s most elaborate technique, employing many of the more dramatic effects from the operas. The Sonata sopra ‘Sancta Maria ora pro nobis’ prominently features small-ensemble instrumental variations in the backdrop of various versions of a single phrase, Ave Maria, Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis—almost a Baroque version of Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. This showmanship is followed by rich choral textures of the Ave maris stella featuring rich choral writing for both ensemble and solo voices alternating with an instrumental ritornello. The orchestral and choral forces united in an awe-inspiring Magnificat that concluded the work.
How fitting that the opening fanfare of the Vespers announced the inaugural concert of Boston Baroque’s 2014-2015 season. There are many decisions that need to be made in performing Monteverdi’s work. Under the leadership of music direction Martin Pearlman, Boston Baroque has treated the Vespers as a signature, having performed it multiple times over many years (even issuing a 1997 recording that has remained a standard). Friday’s performance brought to bear that accumulated experience, and provided a satisfying and balanced version.
Much of the heavy lifting on Friday evening was left to tenor soloists Thomas Cooley and Aaron Sheehan. Cooley, making his premiere with the ensemble, has a substantial voice that is replete in its lower registers while maintaining a robust sound as it climbs higher. He gave the recit-like motet Nigra sum a loving read; flexibly adorning the work with a supple ornamentation that benefited from his darker timbres. Sheehan’s florid tenor played nicely off Cooley’s substantial voice, particularly in movements where the two were paired in duets such as the Audi Coelum, in which Cooley, performing from the balcony, played haunting echo to Sheehan’s aria. The full hall seemed lacking in reverberation, vitiating the echo effect that this movement required. Another memorable moment was Duo seraphim, in which Cooley and Sheehan, both singing from the balcony, were joined by tenor Jonas Budris on stage. The effect of the movement is sonically disorienting, but the spatial play of three voices was exhilarating. Soprano soloists Teresa Wakim and Yulia Van Doren also made for a handsome pairing of voices in Pulchra es. Dana Whitesides and Bradford Gleim, although appearing only briefly, were the bass soloists throughout the work.
The various movements featuring full chorus and orchestra also fared well in music director Martin Pearlman’s fleet interpretation. Friday’s performance tailored the Vespers for the Feast of Assumption (as a collection of Marian motets, the work can be applied to any holiday celebrating Mary) and incorporated chant appropriate to Assumption before the Psalm settings. These introductory chants were robustly intoned by the tenor section—a choice that accentuated the focal plainchant at the center of the psalm settings. Although balance between choir and period orchestra was at times an issue (period brass can often be overwhelming) the choir provided a well-rounded sound that playfully interacted with the period orchestra. This was particularly evident in the sonata section, in which the sopranos achieved a pristine boy-choir-like clarity. Overall, Friday’s collaboration between choir, orchestra and soloists made a compelling case for why this work appears so frequently on Boston Baroque’s programs. Thoughtfully tailored, the two-hour-long traversal of Monteverdi’s Marian motets seemed continually to say something new with ever more interesting and beautiful music.